Getting to Know Tommy
Thomas towers over me. My gentle 21year old son is built like a football player but is as gentle as a teddy bear. We are waiting to get buzzed in at the Centre for Dreams. As soon as the door opens, he runs up the stairs. From the 2nd floor window, he waves goodbye and heads inside. He might turn back to check on me. He needs to make sure I’m leaving.
Every morning drop off is the same and every one makes me happy. I don’t know what I imagined his life was going to be like after his Autism diagnosis, but if I had known that he’d be going to Dreams everyday, I would have worried a lot less!
Thomas was born November 16, 2001- our third child in just over 4 years! Ana and Jake were thrilled to have a little brother. Actually, Ana wanted a sister, but she got over her disappointment when she realized that it would have meant sharing a room! I couldn’t have asked for better siblings for Thomas. From day one, Ana and Jake both wanted to hold him, give him toys and play with him. It was chaos, but the best kind of chaos.
In the first 18 months of Thomas’ life, everything was great. We had 3 kids, a minivan and lived in the suburbs. Couldn’t ask for anything more.
Everything changed overnight.
My husband and I had the chance to get away for a few days, with grandparents coming to watch the kids. Upon our return, Grandma proudly showed me what Thomas had learned. Grandma would say “A, B, C, D…”. And Thomas would clap and smile and laugh and say “EEEEEEEE!”
The next morning, the eye contact, the smile, the clapping, the sounds…they were all gone. I couldn’t get him to respond to me. He hadn’t been speaking in sentences, but he went from sounds and a few words to … nothing. If I hadn’t witnessed it myself, I never would have believed it.
Naturally, like any scared parent, I called the doctor. I explained the overnight change and was told that he’s a boy, he’s a November baby, he’s my third, that I talk too much- but this didn’t make sense. I talk all the time and it hadn’t affected my older 2 kids.
That day set off what would be years trying to figure out what happened to our boy and how to help him. He was behind is every aspect of his development and the little bit of language he had, disappeared overnight. We had entered a new world full of things we didn’t understand. Trips to Sick Kids, blood tests, assessments, Audiologists, Occupational Therapists, Psychologists, Naturopaths, day care, IBI therapy, Speech Therapy… you name it, we tried it. Moments of progress followed by setbacks, but we kept trying.
At 2 1/2 the psychologist told us it wasn’t Autism, Thomas was just delayed, but really delayed. At 3, Sick Kids told us the same thing. Back to the first psychologist at 3 1/2 to hear it again, and finally at 4 1/2, the psychologist told us that Thomas had Autism.
Through it all, Ana and Jake loved Thomas and protected him. I could hear my voice in Ana’s saying “first book, then cookie”. Jake would climb any slide to encourage Thomas to climb. They never complained when Thomas needed more attention. They never complained going to endless doctor appointments with him. One time, we were in the office of a very kind naturopath and the doctor showed Ana and Jake all the bottles in his office. He asked them which medicine they thought was the best for Thomas. As you’d expect from young kids, they pointed to the biggest bottle on the shelf. He smiled and told them: “No. The best medicine for Thomas is the both of you”.
The kids looked at each other and then me (I can still hear their voices): “Don’t worry mommy, we will be Thomas’ medicine.” I cried. I cried because I was scared. I cried because I didn’t want my little boy to need so much help. I cried because I was grateful to have such caring kids.
Even before we got the diagnosis, we knew we had to leave Etobicoke. We were warned that there wouldn’t be support for Thomas at the local school. He was so far behind the other kids, that it was clear he was going to need a lot of support. We didn’t hesitate. We were going to go anywhere that had a school that could help him. It was a life changing decision- and for no particular reason, we moved to Markham. We had no family there, no friends there, but it seemed like a good fit. This move was the very best thing we could have done for our entire family, we just didn’t know it at the time.
Not long after moving to Markham, I was driving on Main St, and I saw a simple sign on a door leading to a basement saying “The Centre for Dreams”. I had no idea what it was, but I went home and I told my husband that I liked that place and I wanted to help them. “What do they do?” He asks. “I have no idea, but it seems like I should help them”. Little did I know the power of that the simple little sign.
My family and I supported The Centre for Dreams since moving here. I helped with fundraisers, my husband was on the board, Ana worked there over 4 summers and Jake helped move furniture from the Main St basement to the current Dreams location. Dreams was a family affair.
We were lucky to have a great Principal at the kids’ elementary school. He started an Autism class which meant my 3 kids could all go to the same school, and later, the same high school. What most families took for granted, our family treasured. During Thomas’ time at William Armstrong PS and Markham District High School, he made progress, slow but steady. He was dressing himself and he could speak in 2-3 word sentences. He could print his name and read words like “cookie” and “fish”. He was still behind in every category, but from the days of not talking and having no eye contact, he had made miraculous gains. He was smiling and laughing again and he was even bossy! He had proved many experts wrong.
When kids like my son turn 16, the Transition Team at the high school helps parents navigate the options for life after graduation. I only needed 5 minutes with the Transition Team. “I don’t need to see other places. Thomas is going to the Centre for Dreams. He’s been on their list since he was 5”. It’s true. I met Elaine and Michelle (and of course John!) I told Michelle that Thomas will be going to Dreams, so they’d better get ready! I blinked and suddenly Thomas, who was 4 1/2 when we moved here, was going to graduate from high school and he’d be going to Dreams!
The last few years of high school were mostly homeschooling due to covid, so I really didn’t know how Thomas would cope with going to a new place. He had only known 2 schools his whole life. My fears were quickly met with relief. The staff were beyond patient, open to my suggestions and sensitive to my concerns. The members welcomed Thomas like an old friend, with smiles, joy and enthusiasm. His friends at Dreams call him Tommy. I love that he has friends. I love that they call him Tommy. I love that he has a place to go that brings him joy and challenges him to try new things.
Thomas has been at Dreams for 9 months and we have seen so many wonderful changes in him. He is talking more (like ALL the time!), he can sing happy birthday and he tolerates art! He participates in the gym class and has discovered a love of bowling, but I think he will always love the sensory room most! He may not have all the words to tell me how he feels, but seeing him run up the stairs, tells me everything I need to know about how much he loves Dreams.
Proud mom of Tommy