When Thomas Bishop sees one of his peers get hurt in the schoolyard, he will probably laugh.
But the 12-year-old Faro boy is not a mean-spirited child.
Last year Bishop was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which has been classified as a type of autism. It is hard to detect and is frequently misdiagnosed.
Before this diagnosis, doctors and social workers consistently told Bishop’s concerned parents, Wendy and Doug Bishop, that their son was “just being difficult,” and suggested he could have Attention Deficit Disorder.
“We had to really fight to finally get a proper diagnosis,” said Wendy.
The Bishops, who live in Faro with four of their five children, piled the kids and the dog into their RV and travelled south this week to attend an autism workshop held at the Gold Rush Inn, Wednesday.
Autism Yukon, in Whitehorse, has some of the best services in Canada for a city this size, said Wendy.
Although Wendy and Doug like living in small towns like Faro, they are beginning to run into some limitations.
The programs and services their son needs to function with his condition are only available in Whitehorse.
“For us not to try and get him to where he can receive help would be neglect — we’d be bad parents,” said Wendy.
But moving to Whitehorse is not going to be easy.
Doug is the only Energy, Mines and Resources representative in Ross River, and when he applied for a transfer, his manager was not very accommodating, said Wendy.
“Doug was told YTG had no obligation to accommodate his son’s needs,” she said.
“And with five kids, we can’t just move to Whitehorse without having jobs in place.”
Wendy works in Ross River as well, managing the community’s daycare. The couple commutes from Faro daily with their four children in tow.
“Originally, we decided to live in Faro so our kids could attend high school right through Grade 12,” said Wendy.
But after Thomas was diagnosed with Asperger’s, the couple pulled him out of school and started teaching him at home.
Thomas was getting bullied and was starting to fake sickness just so he wouldn’t have to go to class, said Wendy.
“He was having trouble in the school system and his teachers and the principal wouldn’t make any allowances for Thomas, even after he was diagnosed.”
Part of the problem is that Asperger’s manifests itself subtly, said Wendy.
“We knew something was different with Thomas, but it was hard to figure out exactly what it was.”
Those with Asperser’s have no obvious intelligence problems and there is no delay in their language development, said autism expert Dr. Suzanne Jacobsen who flew up from Ladner, BC, to speak at Wednesday’s autism workshop.
But their social skills and their ability to interact with others are limited, she said.
“They will often repetitively perform an action, or talk incessantly.”
When people think of autism, they think of how it’s represented on TV, with introverted kids that don’t talk, but that’s not always the case, said Wendy.
Autism has a wide spectrum of symptoms that range from mild to severe.
“In Thomas’ case, people look at him and his physical size and make assumptions about the level he’s functioning at, and they’re wrong,” she said.
“He’s a younger person in a 12-year-old’s body.”
And, as a result, he can’t relate to his peers, she said.
Instead he spends time with younger kids or adults, who will listen to him without ridiculing him if he gets off topic.
Sitting together during Wednesday’s workshop luncheon, Wendy and Doug were chatting with Jacobsen, when Thomas piped up, “Yah, and they took away half of our school playground in Faro.”
It came out of nowhere, and Wendy wasn’t even sure if it was true.
“It was the first I heard of it,” she said.
Thomas will often talk about things he firmly believes, that might not have actually happened, said Wendy.
And he’s especially fond of stories that make him look like he’s very responsible and did the right thing.
“He might come home and tell us he saved his sister, or the dog,” she said.
“But there is never any substantiating evidence.”
And when Thomas laughs at someone who falls off the slide in the playground, he will discuss how funny it looks and then say, “Oh, by the way, they hurt themselves,” more as an afterthought, said Wendy.
It’s this lack of empathy that makes it hard for him to make friends, she added.
Wendy and Doug now home-school all four of their younger children, and find their kids are getting better grades than they did in the public school system.
“Before, if they stayed home sick, or someone was talking in class, they’d miss part of the lesson,” said Wendy.
“But with home-schooling this doesn’t happen.”
Wendy starts her kids’ lessons each day after work, and admitted it takes a lot of time.
“But Thomas is much happier in this secure structure,” she said.
Once he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, Health and Social Services recommended Wendy hire a nanny, or quit her job to stay home with her son.
But this was not economically feasible, she said.
Instead the kids commute everyday with their parents to Ross River where they can do some schoolwork on their own and take walks.
Having a child with Asperger’s makes it more challenging being a parent, said Wendy.
If Doug and Wendy can’t find sustainable work in Whitehorse, and get Thomas into the programs and services he needs, they fear he will become a dependent adult.
“We don’t want him to be 50 and living at home, with us worrying about who’s going to look after him when we die,” said Wendy.
With the proper services and programs Thomas could learn the social skills he’s lacking, she said.
People with Asperger’s can lead functional lives, often with very specialized careers, because they tend to focus on one thing and excel at it, she said.
But they also tend to be more naïve and trusting and are more susceptible to addiction problems, said Wendy.
While in Whitehorse, Doug and Wendy met a man with Asperger’s who was living on the street.
“He wasn’t seeing his social workers, he was on lots of different drugs and he told us excessive noise made him feel violent, then he offered to mentor our son,” said Wendy.
“I just don’t want to imagine our son turning out like him — falling out of the system in the same way.”
Wendy, who has a social worker diploma, has put in applications for work in Whitehorse. And Doug is still hoping for a transfer, even if he just ends up licking stamps, she said.
“As parents, it’s our responsibility to get Thomas the support he needs.”