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A love for Bim

Sue McMillan

by Latoya Burnham

Mention the word Barbados and Sue McMillan gets excited. She even becomes emotional when she sees the Bajan flag unfurl – and she’s Canadian.

It’s a love of this country that has come from 40 visits and weeks spent doing what she loves best – working with autistic children.

McMillan’s volunteer work, which she now does through the Barbados Council for the Disabled, began in the most unexpected way. She was at a local hotel chatting with another guest about what she does as a speech pathologist working with children with autism and she was overheard by someone who knew a family with a child they were trying to work with.

Without naming the family, she explained that she was put in touch with them and was able to implement a programme for the child and the family to help with his home schooling.

From 2003 to 2006, she consulted with the family and the following year it was suggested that there should be some kind of formalised training, as there were other families who could use her skills.

Sitting in the office of the Kerry-Ann Ifill, President of the BCD and the Barbados Senate, McMillan hastily noted that there are three talented speech pathologists in the island and praised the work they do with children with autism, but she added that the island could use more such talented individuals. She sees this as an opportunity to not only do what she does best, but to witness miracles while helping some of those families who cannot afford to pay for private services.

She began the More Than Words programme, which was developed by The Hanen Centre in Canada, with the permission of that institution to conduct sessions here, starting with children and their parents in 2007.

According to the Centre’s website, “The More Than Words Programme was designed specifically for parents of children ages 5 and under on the autism spectrum. Addressing the unique needs of these children, the program provides parents with the tools, strategies and support they need to help their children reach their full communication potential.”

McMillan explained: “As a pilot project at Christmas of 2007, through the Council for the Disabled, I provided four days of clinical services. I donated my time here and I saw 16 children and their parents over a four-day period to do some assessments or screenings and provide some preliminary recommendations. The response was very positive so in the spring of 2008 I came back to do some presentations to some groups here to do some fundraising to start the More Than Words Programme.”

From then til now, with the BCD providing technical and other assistance the programme has continued to grow, with McMillan having worked with more than 20 families over her numerous visit. Funding has been provided though a number of charitable organisations, private banks, the Because of Jenna Trust, the Canadian Women’s Group, Variety, the Children’s Charity and others over that time, which has kept the programme going.

She explained that the programme is administered through a series of modules between October and May of each year, with the specific strategies suggested implemented to develop the skills of the children. There are eight sessions in a classroom setting with the parents and their children and then Sue visits each parent’s home individually for one-on-one sessions.

This year though, both McMillan and the council were happy to announce that they were able to extend the programme, with the OK of the Hanen Centre, to teachers as well, an area that McMillan acknowledged could benefit significantly from the supplementary training.

The speech language pathologist for the past 18 years said she has watched the programme grow and seen the 24 families and now numerous teachers from the Learning Centre, the Irvin Wilson School and the Challenor School go through the programme with surprising results. It’s these results that keeps her coming back several times a year now.

“The focus of my practice is autism,” she said of what she does in Canada professionally. “I do see children with Down’s Syndrome, with language-based learning disability. I see children who stutter, so there is variety every day, but the thing that keeps me going is small miracles; because with children with autism or any other severe disability, you don’t see these big gains right away. You see small miracles and you celebrate them. That’s what keeps me going.”

And the addition of the teaching of teachers element of the programme since 2011 has been a challenge she acknowledged because the More Than Words programme was created initially for parents and their children.

“It at times has required a lot of creativity on the fly because the intervention is really a lot about building communication, which is about relationships. So you have to go from thinking about a parent/child relationship to thinking about a student/child relationship. In some ways they are similar, but in other ways very different. So it has been a great challenge for me as a clinician and as a therapist. I have learnt a lot through doing this with teachers.”

She praised the island and the council for keeping a focus on children with disabilities, though she said she knew there was still much to be done.

Her greatest challenge with the new programme has been marrying the academic goals teachers have for their students with the communication, social skills and playing goals of the programme, but she is satisfied she is getting there slowly. Like anything when working with children with disabilities, she acknowledged that the wheels do turn slowly.

McMillan admitted she has been amazed at the warmth of Bajans and the staff at the council and other agencies, charities and associations she has worked with and funded the efforts, in welcoming her initially as an unknown who simply wanted to help make the lives of children and their families a bit easier.

“From 2007 until now there have been some wonderful things happening locally. The Sunshine Early Stimulation Centre, their knowledge and programme has been growing. There are three local private speech language pathologists/therapists who have done a lot of additional training in autism and increased their knowledge of the interventions.

“I think the public awareness is also growing about autism here,” she said, pleased that the Autism Association and individuals like Deborah Thompson-Smith [of Spectrum Possibilities] are also working to increase the knowledge of professionals and parents here on the island.

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