By Thea Gribilas
Sonya Thompson* remembers visiting a child psychologist at the Hospital for Sick Children with her son, Michael*, when he was nearly 3 years old. The psychologist walked into the room, warmly smiled at the pair, rested her eyes on Michael and said “he’s a lovely boy, he smiles. But I think a little too much.”
“Isn’t that an interesting thing to say,” Sonya thought at the time.
But she soon realized that Michael did smile frequently, often when it wasn’t an appropriate time to smile.
Michael was subsequently diagnosed with atypical autism – he was affectionate and communicative, uncommon for a child with autism – at 31 months, earlier than the 36-month milestone when an autism diagnosis is typically made.
At age 10, Michael began experiencing violent episodes. During these episodes Sonya would isolate herself and her daughter, Sydney* – often locking themselves in Sonya’s room or going out to the quiet of the car so Sydney could focus on her homework – while Sonya’s husband, Kevin*, was taking care of Michael.
By the time he was 14, Michael was already six-foot-five and 195 pounds, making his episodes even more difficult to deal with. However, Sonya and Kevin still had no plan for Michael to ever leave their care, feeling that the best place for him was with his family at home.
But at age 17, during one of Michael’s episodes, Sonya sustained significant injuries, breaking several ribs and her nose. The injuries that she suffered that day led Sonya and Kevin to reluctantly take Michael to Thistletown – a residential mental health centre for children – only expecting a one-night stay. However, while at Thistletown, Michael had an incident and was subsequently taken to Etobicoke General Hospital where he spent 31 days in a psychiatric unit, heavily medicated and in four-point restraints unless either Sonya or Kevin was present.
At this point, they began searching for services outside of their home for Michael.
“We weren’t prepared for that,” said Sonya. “But I started [searching].”
The hospital suggested that Kevin and Sonya press charges of assault against their son. This would’ve resulted in him being taken to a hospital in Penetanguishene, Ont. for the criminally insane.
They also considered putting him in foster care.
“My husband and I both knew that those weren’t options for us,” said Sonya. “So, we kept looking.”
At the same time, Sydney, three years older than Michael, was studying nursing and was starting a required community placement. She was ultimately placed at Reena and very quickly recognized that Michael needed to be there.
Reena was established in 1973 by a group of parents of children with developmental disabilities. It is a non-profit organization that provides support for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families, incorporating traditional Jewish culture into their programming.
“You’re talking to a mom, and my husband would say the same thing, we never thought that he would leave our home, we always thought that we would look after Michael.”
20 years later, Sonya does not regret taking Michael to Reena. She smiles at the thought of Michael’s main support worker, a lady from Nigeria who, with a laugh, she describes as a “surrogate mother” to Michael.
“This isn’t just a day job to them; this is a commitment, and we see it through the organization, they’re just absolutely amazing,” she said.
Today, Reena provides support for close to 1,000 individuals with developmental disabilities across their 30 group homes and 60 supported independent living apartments with services including residential support, respite programs, counselling, advocacy and therapy at their numerous facilities throughout the Greater Toronto Area.
“The heartbreak of him going made me feel like we would never be a family again,” Sonya recalls with a thoughtful smile. “But we are, [Reena and their staff] helped us, we are.”
*Names have been changed to protect sources’ privacy