Kiara and her vil­lage

After po­lice brought the autistic teen home one day, her fam­ily took her life — and her story — pub­lic

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - BLAIR CRAW­FORD

When po­lice brought home her daugh­ter, Kiara, after they found her perched bare­foot on the rail­ing of a small bridge on Hazeldean Road, Stittsville’s Shannon Whit­ney took an ex­traor­di­nary step.

She went pub­lic, “out­ing ” Kiara (with Kiara’s per­mis­sion) to the Stittsville Neigh­bours Face­book page.

“I’d like to in­tro­duce you to my daugh­ter, Kiara,” Whit­ney wrote in the post last month. “Kiara is a lov­ing, car­ing, con­tent teenager who strongly val­ues good­ness. Kiara also lives with high func­tion­ing autism and has strong sen­sory needs.”

Kiara is 13, whip-smart and big for her age. She likes to walk. A lot. And be­cause she over­heats eas­ily, she dresses lightly and of­ten walks bare­foot, crav­ing the sen­sory in­put she gets from bare feet on earth.

Kiara was perched on the guard rail of a small bridge on Hazeldean Road, just around the cor­ner from the mo­bile home they rent on Bradley Green Court. Po­lice told the Whit­neys they ’d re­ceived “nu­mer­ous calls.”

“It’s not a big bridge,” Kiara ex­plains. “It’s the one with small rail­ing and it’s over a tiny river and I was bal­anc­ing on the rail­ing and I was sit­ting on it and at one point I took off my shoes and peo­ple got scared and the po­lice came.”

She says she likes to “peo­ple watch” while on her long out­ings.

“Peo­ple watch­ing is ex­tremely fun be­cause peo­ple are weird and it’s nice call­ing them out for it.”

The Whit­neys rented the mo­bile home in Novem­ber, mov­ing from their house in Or­léans so they could be closer to the spe­cial pri­vate school Kiara at­tends. In the phi­los­o­phy of “it takes a vil­lage to raise a child,” par­tic­u­larly one with spe­cial needs, Shannon de­cided it was im­por­tant to let her neigh­bours know about Kiara’s idio­syn­cra­sies. Be­cause she’s so smart, peo­ple of­ten don’t de­tect Kiara is on the autism spec­trum.

“My phi­los­o­phy in Or­léans was, it’s bet­ter to be known,” Shannon said. “Peo­ple were watch­ing her as she was walk­ing down the street. It wasn’t creepy. They were watch­ing out for her. They were de­lighted that she was so happy.”

Kiara also likes to climb — Shannon’s hus­band, Tran, has pounded spikes into the maple tree in their yard to help her clam­ber up to a nook where she likes to sit and view the world. She picks dan­de­lions, loves an­i­mals and stuffs her pock­ets with trea­sures while she walks — “She’s like a crow,” Tran says with a laugh. “She likes shiny ob­jects.”

Kiara was em­bar­rassed when the po­lice brought her home but read­ily gave per­mis­sion for her mom to go pub­lic. “Is there any­thing you don’t want them to know?” Shannon asks as the fam­ily meets with a re­porter and photographer. “No, it’s OK,” Kiara replies.

“We’ve come to the point of cal­cu­lated risk,” says Shannon, a man­ager with Shared Ser­vices Canada. “We did have a talk (with Kiara) about how other peo­ple don’t know her. Other peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that she’s con­fi­dent and se­cure on the bridge. Our big thing is that we treat her like a 13-yearold. She should be able to roam like a 13-year-old, as long (as) she can demon­strate, not risk tak­ing, but that she will fol­low the proper pro­to­col.”

Shannon, who is deaf and com­mu­ni­cated with a re­porter ver­bally and through text, says her ad­vo­cacy for Kiara was in­spired by the way her mother ad­vo­cated for her as a deaf child.

The Whit­neys have been over­whelmed by the pos­i­tive sup­port they’ve re­ceived since Shannon’s post.

“Thank you for in­tro­duc­ing us to your daugh­ter in such a lov­ing and thought­ful way. I have no doubt that she will be sur­rounded by a kind and con­cerned com­mu­nity, all of whom will en­sure her well­be­ing,” one wo­man replied.

“Thank you for shar­ing this about Kiara,” wrote another. “I ac­tu­ally saw her to­day, bal­anc­ing on a guardrail along Hazeldean Road. … She was ab­so­lutely safe, and I thought, ‘Now there’s a child that knows how to have fun!!’ … En­joy your walks Kiara!”

And another: “I will hap­pily be part of her vil­lage! Love the smile, love the fact that you em­brace and value her needs and love that you have shared her story with us. Stittsville moms will keep her safe, I have no doubt.”

Another per­son asked what to do if they see Kiara do­ing some­thing that re­ally is un­safe and what were the best ways to ap­proach her.

Even po­lice were un­der­stand­ing and com­pas­sion­ate in their re­sponse, Shannon said. (Kiara is listed on the Ot­tawa po­lice autism reg­istry, which gives of­fi­cers in­for­ma­tion from fam­i­lies on be­hav­iours and calm­ing tech­niques.) She thanks all those who re­sponded to her Face­book post.

“Thank you to all of you for your amaz­ing and sup­port­ive re­sponses. In the years that have passed since Kiara’s di­ag­no­sis, we’ve come to re­al­ize that keep­ing this pri­vate out of fear of stigma­ti­za­tion just isn’t worth it. It’s more im­por­tant for us that she be em­braced as she is, that she never ever feel ashamed for hav­ing been born with chal­lenges, and that she have a sup­port­ive com­mu­nity around her lov­ing her and lift­ing her up.”

ASHLEY FRASER

Kiara Whit­ney, 13, lives with high func­tion­ing autism. ‘It’s im­por­tant to us that she is em­braced as she is, that she never, ever feel ashamed for hav­ing been born with chal­lenges,’ says mother Shannon Whit­ney.

PHO­TOS: ASHLEY FRASER

Kiara Whit­ney, 13, who lives with high-func­tion­ing autism, has strong sen­sory needs and en­joys tak­ing long walks.

Kiara likes to sit and view the world from a tree in her back­yard.

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