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Doc’s autism learning curve

by Latoya Burnham

lovingmedrfordeandfamilyWe often think of our doctors as all knowing. We expect that when we walk in, sit in their offices or on their examination tables that they will not only have the diagnosis, but a line of treatment and medication already mapped out.

What we seldom think about is that every day life can be a challenge and a learning experience for these highly respected and favoured professionals.

Dr. Andrew Forde loves his children. There’s no doubt about that.

But for the past five years, Andrew and his family have been dealing with and learning all they can about autism, after his son and the last of his children was diagnosed with the condition at about a year old.

Andrew, a dermatologist with a practice in Belleville, sat in his office and talked openly with LOVING ME about the hard long road it’s been towards creating an environment where his son can learn and develop normal social skills the rest of us usually take for granted.

His son, Shaun Andrew Forde developed normally until about eight or 10 months of age. By the time Shaun was a year, Andrew and wife Sheralyn, having had two daughters, Shanice, now 13 and Andreya, now 11, realised that Shaun’s social interactions were not the same as their other children.

“At about one year he would avoid social contact and did a lot of things on his own. He stopped looking you in the eye and would avoid eye contact and also developed some repetitive movements, noises, walking on tip-toe, flapping the arms and looking at his fingers and looking at things through his fingers, that sort of thing. His language stopped developing to the stage where he said nothing, but the main thing for me is that if you called him, he wouldn’t come. I was also concerned about whether he might have been deaf or had a hearing impairment,” said Andrew.

lovingmeandrewfordeskidsSo thus begun the inevitable questions about Shaun’s development to his paediatrician.

“I voiced my concerns to his paediatrician and his paediatrician thought well children develop at different rates, so I should be patient and give him six months. After that happened on one or two occasions I realised that I had to do something,” he maintained.


It was especially difficult for Andrew, who having raised two other children who were normal, his inability to interact normally and receive expected responses from his only son created a kind of disconnect for him that he was not sure how to deal with.

“We didn’t really have a relationship since he was a boy and that is something you really want to foster. So that disconnect, it was like there was a little stranger who did his own thing, did not need anything other than feeding or changing, but he was absorbed in what he did.”

But then he realised a new development he had not expected in Shaun – an affinity for technology. Andrew had bought himself an iPad, and once his son got his hands on it there was no stopping him. Games, programmes and other little areas became interesting and fascinating things for young two-year-old Shaun and it was an interest Andrew encouraged.

“He dominated my iPad and liked to do everything I had on it. I realised he liked it so much that I bought him one, so he had an iPad before he was two. When he was on that he looked totally normal.”

But there was still the process of getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment for those other times, when Shaun’s interactions were less than as keen as they were on the iPad. Andrew said one of the things he realised in the process was that paediatricians, not just here but in the US as well, did not seem to know much about autism.

Moment of truth

He said he didn’t know if it was because it was such a small area in the teaching programmes, but over time Andrew realised he needed to do his own research, and with that and his medical knowledge he realised his son was autistic.

So began a new kind of journey towards his own education as well as that of his son. He read everything he could get his hands on about the condition.

For a doctor with his own practice, Andrew acknowledged that the juggling of his own career and the learning and developmental needs of his son were not easy. But his job helped him pay for that special attention his son would need – evaluation, classes, therapy etc.

“We spend time together but it is not always the type of interaction that I’d be satisfied with, but I have to understand his limitations. Having the job I do with the earning capacity I have, helped me do what I need to get him off the spectrum.”

His research came in handy as well, because his own analysis of one of the institutions he first enrolled his son in, while it served a purpose, Andrew said Shaun needed more. So he came across the applied behavioural analysis approach, better known as ABA, and that was the avenue they took. It meant a long process of filling out forms and getting reports from psychologists, occupational therapists.

This is the second year that Shaun has been a part of an ABA programme.

“I’ve seen changes. If I measure the changes in terms of a normal child, I would be frustrated, but understanding that autism is unpredictable and his communication deficit was so large, he has made significant strides.”

Andrew has seen increases in his son’s joint attention abilities, his eye contact, and his use of a pictorial communication tool to communicate, and also his ability to recite letters of the alphabet. He enjoys a healthy interaction with his sisters as well and they too share an obvious love and affection for their brother.

For a father who longed for greater interaction with his son too, these are milestones, though Andrew has far greater ambitions for what he wants his son to eventually be able to do in the long term.

But the process continues. It’s one that now sees Andrew being able to utilise his new knowledge to even advise his own patients to get their children checked if in his own practice he notices something not quite right.

Meanwhile, Shaun continues to master child apps and games on the iPad and his father celebrates every little victory – after all they are learning and growing together.

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