Beyond the Spectrum

Children’s Autism Services of Edmonton celebrates 20 years of seeing autism differently

As Children’s Autism Services of Edmonton celebrates its 20th year in operation in 2024, Executive Director Terri Duncan remembers a time not too long ago when conversations about autism were a lot less frequent and even less informed.

“I used to tell people that I worked with a child with autism and they would say, ‘What’s that?’” Duncan said, recounting her days as a speech language pathology student at the University of Alberta. “In fact, even when I went to school, they taught us that you may come across kids with autism in your practice. So we thought it was a rare thing.”

Those were the 1990s when autism was a little known condition that had only recently been recognized by organizations like the American Psychiatric Association.

Terri Duncan, Executive Director of Children’s Autism Services of Edmonton.

Reported global autism rates have since increased  dramatically, rising from one in 1,000 people in the early 1990s to over one in 100 people today. The Public Health Agency of Canada reported that almost one in every 50 Canadian children and adolescents lives with autism. The increased prevalence of autism has to do with several factors, including improved diagnostic measures.

Despite the rising rates, Duncan and the team at Children’s Autism Services have always been more interested in engaging with autistic children meaningfully.

They are especially passionate about facilitating those connections through the Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support — or SCERTS — Model, a framework that emphasizes connection and communication over the behaviour-based approaches commonly applied when working with autistic children. Duncan was first exposed to the SCERTS Model through the work of Barry Prizant, and since founding Children’s Autism Services in 2004, has integrated it into every aspect of
the organization’s work.

“We’re not trying to get kids to do what we want them to do,” Duncan says. “It’s not about control or compliance or behaviour management.”

“What we do is work on relationships, interactions and emotional regulation to help kids stay regulated and ready to learn. But emotional regulation is at the core of everything that we do.”

Through Children’s Autism Services, autistic children and their families are able to access specialized in-home services, respite care, diagnostic services and early childhood pre-school services, as well as summer camps and recreational services.

Each of the programs is characterized by small group sizes and directed support from registered professionals. The non-profit aspires to develop the functional skills of autistic children and build up the
competence, independence and confidence of parents and caretakers.

The resounding success of that approach suggests that it is not only singular, but effective.

Fall 2024 will also see Children’s Autism Services open its very own school for autistic children. Kids in their first two primary-school years can attend for this school year. The school is meant to be a space where children with autism can not only access specialized services but community members can be educated about the SCERTS Model.

The school is set to be named after Prestige Auto Group President Jim Jiwani, who got to know Children’s Autism Services after operating a dealership next door to its offices for years before donating over $3 million to help the organization purchase the building and land.

Children’s Autism Services has also received support from Edmonton Community Foundation over the years, whether it was in obtaining equipment, launching the organization’s learning management system, connecting with other local charities or helping build the organization’s current building from the ground up almost 12 years ago.

“We have been very fortunate to have the community support that we have had,” says Duncan, citing people like Klaus Maier — namesake of Children’s Autism Service’s current headquarters — as well as the countless volunteers and board members that help the organization flourish.

For Duncan, however, the work of Children’s Autism Services always goes back to imagining more for what education, child care and ultimately life could be for autistic children in Edmonton and beyond.

“Families and the school systems can benefit from learning that there is a better way to support our students without trying to physically force them to do things and without trying to force them to comply.”

“The hope for this organization is the same as it’s always been, which is to share that knowledge and make sure that the community understands that there are ways that we can support our autistic children and adults to be successful and to improve their quality of life.”