By Garrett Simmons
There are very few opportunities for rural families of children with disabilities, including Autism or Down Syndrome, to access community resources. In most cases, in fact, the resources simply do not exist.
With that in mind, Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) is offering Autism and Down Syndrome Support Groups in communities throughout its coverage area.
“The idea to have Support Groups came from working one on one with families with children with disabilities, including Autism and Down Syndrome. It was clear that families would benefit from the connection and support that accompanies a support group environment,” said Jackie Fiorino, FCSS Family Support Worker. As a result, Fiorino established two supports groups, one for families with children diagnosed with Autism, and one for families with children diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
The support groups started in March 2023. The preferred structure for families was an online setting, as this helped to decrease travel time and isolation by providing new connections with other rural families in the region. Fiorino facilitates the sessions, but in the end, the client connection piece is the key to the success of the initiative. “Our hope is to unite families and help them establish long-lasting relationships and support.”
This new FCSS initiative has not only met the needs of local families but has been an important referral source for other government and non-government organizations such as Alberta Health Services, Family Ties and Family Support for Children with Disabilities (FSCD).
According to Petra DeBow, FCSS Manager, the sessions are a great way for families to connect and share their wisdom.
“The sessions provide natural supports,” she said. “That peer-to-peer support is very beneficial.”
Often, that type of peer-to-peer support is missing for families, added Fiorino, as children with Autism or Down Syndrome may find it difficult to interact with other children in public settings like playgrounds or other social situations.
The sessions may act as a springboard for families to get together on their own, and have their children play together in settings outside the FCSS environment as well. There may even be an opportunity for parents to utilize FCSS facilities for quick get-togethers.
“We do have spaces available in most communities, so even if parents wanted to meet without FCSS facilitation, that could be an option as well,” said DeBow.
The sessions, which typically take place on the second Monday of the month for the Down Syndrome group and the last Monday for the Autism group, are very free flowing.
“We just allow them to connect, we introduce the people new to the group and I kind of leave it to them to generate conversations,” said Fiorino. “They can talk about how their week has bene going, some of the positives and some of the challenges they are experiencing. I’ve just seen friendships grow and people asking for each other’s emails, so I think that’s the main thing.”