Walking for the first time in this year’s Autism Speaks Canada Walk at Nathan Phillips Square was an eye-opener for Chief Mark Saunders.
The youngest of his four children – Graham – has an autism spectrum disorder.
“I was shocked by the number of people touched by autism,” he said. “I also felt comfortable for the first time because I didn’t feel alone. There were so many people out there.”
Saunders said he learned a valuable lesson from his son during the walk.
“I was talking about looking for a cure for autism and he stopped me and said, ‘there is nothing wrong with me’, I think differently and that’s it’,” related Saunders. “He’s right. There is no cure. We are looking for the cause.”
Last April, Saunders celebrated the eighth annual World Autism Awareness Day by “lighting it up blue” to support those with autism and their families.
“One of the things you find out when you live with autism is that 99 per cent of the time the fathers are the ones that go through denial first,” Saunders said, at the Reena Foundation Exceptional Abilities fundraising gala on September 29, where he was honoured for his advocacy for those with autism.
“It takes a while before the men get on board. It’s okay, as long as you get on board because the game changes after that. Now, what you are responsible for is to try to make that young man or woman the best person in the world you possibly can make them to be, and that is what we decided to do. We had to put on a multitude of hats, including the learning hat. You learn because if you don’t do that, you are not going to be able to move anything further down the line.”
Saunders praised his wife, Stacey, for her devotion to their son and for her commitment to learn everything about the mental condition.
“She attended courses, lectures and conferences and read many books on the subject,” said Saunders. “She even formed a support group. My wife is the rock of my son, the rock of me. She was the first person who said we need to see if our son needs to be looked at.”
The Reena Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping those with developmental disabilities realize their full potential.
“With your donations tonight, you are giving people opportunities and a most precious gift in life which is hope,” Sauders said. “Whenever you give hope, that is a starting point and success for anybody in the world. That’s all people ask for.”
David Midgen, who has developmental disabilities and is supported by Reena, presented an award on behalf of the organization to Saunders for his autism advocacy.