By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Sitting at the dining room table navigating an iPad with great efficiency, Dominique Rondeau looks like any other six-year-old boy. His fingers move across the touch screen as they open and close the electronic device’s various applications and games with ease. But Dominique is not like every other boy his age. He is autistic, a neurological disorder that affects approximately one in 200 Canadians.
The Autism Society of Edmonton Area defines autism as “a neurological disorder that affects the way the brain processes information.” According to the organization, adults and children with Autism Spectrum Disorders are affected with respect to their verbal and non-verbal communication, social skills, relationships, behaviour, interests and activities. Autism is referred to as a spectrum disorder because of the wide range of symptoms autistic people may display as well as the varying degrees in which the symptoms affect their lives.
In Dominique’s case, there have been a few instances where he has wandered away from the family home, a situation that happened most recently over the Christmas holidays when he managed to unbolt and unlatch the door of the family home and slip out without his coat. Because Dominique does not sleep well, father Christian Rondeau often does not sleep well. After a particular sleepless night, Mr. Rondeau fell asleep on the couch just long enough for his son to work the locks and get out.
“You try not to panic because that’s not really going to help,” Rondeau said. “Really all that went through my head was get my butt out the door, get in the van, and try and find Dominique. You’re scared. You don’t know what’s going to happen to him.”
Thankfully Dominique did not get far, just down the street and around the corner where he came in contact with a neighbour who was able to look after the boy until his father picked him up. “He [the neighbour] called EMS to check him out and they called the RCMP,” Rondeau said. “I just happened to be at the RCMP telling them I can’t find my kid.”
The incident is not the first time Dominique has managed to get out of the home despite his family’s efforts to ensure the doors are secure. The most recent incident is the fifth time in recent years. “We don’t know why he does it. We can’t get into his head to figure it out. We’ve tried various ways to lock him in,” Rondeau said. “When he takes off he doesn’t put anything on. He just goes out. Thankfully it wasn’t too cold.”
The family has purchased a medical alert bracelet and had it engraved with Dominique’s name, his address, the fact he is autistic, and a cell phone number to call the family.
Seeking understanding of autism
Rondeau and his family are telling their story in the hopes community members will recognize Dominique should he get away again, but also to raise awareness of autism, particularly when people see a child acting out in a local store. Rondeau said it is common for people to think the child is undisciplined and spoiled, but the reality may just be the child is autistic.
“Having an autistic child brings all new levels of challenges,” Rondeau said. “None of them are the same. They call it a spectrum disorder for a reason. They might have this, but they might have all this other stuff.”
Just what causes autism is unknown, but researchers believe it concerns developmental differences and functions in the brain. Current research is tracing theories that suggest autism may be caused by genetics or viral infections, and other theories that point to environmental causes, including allergies and exposures to certain types of chemicals.
Particularly frustrating for the Rondeau family is the assumption their child and other autistic children’s behaviour is because of improper discipline or the child being spoiled. “People never jump to the conclusion that maybe something’s going on,” Rondeau said. “There is a reason for his behaviour. No one can explain the reason for the behaviour. I try to minimize his outbursts. I try to keep him calm and happy. He cannot communicate, so he cannot [verbally] express his frustrations.”
Rondeau said the situation has prevented him from taking Dominique shopping many times. “You get people who give you dirty looks,” he said. “Why aren’t you doing something about it? Why are you letting him do that? It would be nice if people took a moment to understand maybe something is going on that they don’t understand.”
While public understanding of autism may be lacking, understanding at home is plentiful. Rondeau said Dominique’s needs takes up the majority of the family’s time, but that plenty of effort is made to ensure the other children receive the attention they need. The other children are accommodating in providing their brother’s needs. The family receives some assistance in looking after Dominique so the other members of the family can go for an occasional movie outing.
For more information on autism visit autismsocietyalberta.org.