Autis­tic daugh­ter be­came sui­ci­dal af­ter join­ing group

Calgary Herald - - OPINION - LICIA CORBELLA lcor­bella@post­

The par­ents of a south­ern Al­berta autis­tic girl are warn­ing other par­ents that had Bill 24 been the law over the past two years, their 14-yearold daugh­ter very likely could have com­mit­ted sui­cide.

The par­ents, who have asked that their names be changed and their iden­ti­ties hid­den to pro­tect their daugh­ter’s pri­vacy, are plead­ing with Rachel Not­ley’s NDP govern­ment to “not shut par­ents out of their chil­dren’s lives” and “to bring some nu­ance” into Bill 24, which be­came law in Al­berta on Nov. 15.

Bill 24 makes it il­le­gal for ed­u­ca­tors to tell par­ents if their child has joined a GSA, or gay-straight al­liance, at their school. But this cou­ple — who are go­ing by the names Sarah and Stephen for the pur­poses of this ar­ti­cle — say their Grade 9 daugh­ter fell into a “dark place” af­ter join­ing her school’s GSA.

“I be­lieve this law is go­ing to en­dan­ger kids, which is the op­po­site of what Premier Not­ley is try­ing to achieve,” said Stephen, a sci­en­tist who works in the en­ergy in­dus­try and who says he is very much in favour of GSAs, as is the en­tire fam­ily.

The cou­ple’s daugh­ter started Grade 7 at her mid­dle school in the fall of 2015 at the age of 12. It was around that time that she reached pu­berty — some­thing that up­set her.

The girl, who will be called Jane in this ar­ti­cle, has body dys­mor­phia, a con­di­tion the Mayo Clinic de­scribes as “a men­tal dis­or­der in which you can’t stop think­ing about one or more per­ceived de­fects or flaws in your ap­pear­ance.”

Dur­ing el­e­men­tary school, Jane suf­fered from anorexia, some­thing she over­came through the help of her par­ents, coun­selling and at­tend­ing eat­ing dis­or­der clin­ics.

Early into the 2015 school year, the par­ents no­ticed that Jane was more anx­ious than usual.

The wor­ried par­ents were even­tu­ally told by a teacher that Jane had joined the school’s GSA and they were “com­pletely fine with it. We thought it would be a safe place for her to meet new friends, stand up against bul­ly­ing and learn about how ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent,” said Stephen.

Even­tu­ally, how­ever, the school wrote the cou­ple a let­ter rec­om­mend­ing that they take Jane — who was still 12 years old — to a gen­der clinic.

By very gen­tly talk­ing with Jane away from the stress of peer pres­sure, they learned that Jane was be­ing called a boy’s name at school and ad­dressed with male pro­nouns. At home, she’d be called by her real name and fe­male pro­nouns.

“To live a dou­ble life, where she’s keep­ing this huge se­cret from her fam­ily, in­clud­ing her sib­lings, is ex­ceed- in­gly stress­ful, es­pe­cially for some­one with autism and body dys­mor­phia,” ex­plained Sarah.

“(Jane) was adamant that she did not want to be a boy, and prior to pu­berty, she was fine with be­ing a girl,” said Sarah.

“A psy­chi­a­trist asked her if she wanted a pe­nis and she re­coiled at the thought and re­it­er­ated that she doesn’t want to be a boy.”

As Stephen said: “Thirty or 40 years ago, she’d have been de­scribed as a Tom­boy.”

It was de­cided, with the help of men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als, that the safest way to pro­ceed for Jane was to stop liv­ing a dou­ble life and be re­ferred to only as a girl. The school agreed but, ap­par­ent- ly, many of her school peers con­tin­ued to call her by her male name.

As Christ­mas 2015 ap­proached, Sarah re­ceived a pan­icked call from the school to pick Jane up, as she was threat­en­ing to com­mit sui­cide.

“She was su­per anx­ious, she had sui­ci­dal ideations. She was in a very dan­ger­ous place,” re­called Sarah. Within a week of be­ing kept at home and see­ing her coun­sel­lor every chance they could, Jane im­proved im­mensely. Still, she was never left alone for a mo­ment.

“I’m a very ac­cept­ing person,” said Stephen. “I love peo­ple for who they are. I have many LGBTQ friends. I love all peo­ple, I se­ri­ously do, but they’re pro­mot­ing the idea on kids who nor­mally would not have gone there.

“They were fa­cil­i­tat­ing and go­ing out of their way to tran­si­tion her into be­com­ing a boy with­out our knowl­edge. But what train­ing do they have about chil­dren with autism?” asked Stephen.

“The school un­der­mined us and that led (Jane) to that point of sui­cide. We could have helped our daugh­ter, but they didn’t give us that op­por­tu­nity.”

For two months, Jane was kept at home while the fam­ily searched in vain for a new school for their daugh­ter, even con­sid­er­ing mov­ing out of the prov­ince.

Even­tu­ally, the school’s prin­ci­pal be­came more involved and Jane re­turned to her school.

“He apol­o­gized to us for what the school did to Jane and promised that they would work with us and not vi­o­late what’s in the best in­ter­est of our daugh­ter,” said Stephen, who reached out for help from the Jus­tice Cen­tre for Con­sti­tu­tional Free­doms.

They also ap­proached Ja­son Ken­ney, now the United Con­ser­va­tive Party leader, who has men­tioned their story on sev­eral oc­ca­sions as a rea­son why more dis­cre­tion is needed in the GSA leg­is­la­tion, to em­power teach­ers to not nec­es­sar­ily keep in­for­ma­tion from lov­ing, safe par­ents.

Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter David Eggen was given three days to re­spond to re­peated re­quests for an in­ter­view to dis­cuss this fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ence, how­ever, he re­fused and is­sued the fol­low­ing state­ment:

“This leg­is­la­tion will make sure that stu­dents are the ones who de­cide when and how to have these deeply per­sonal and im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tions with their par­ents and loved ones. If a stu­dent’s safety is at risk, par­ents will be no­ti­fied. One of our govern­ment’s top pri­or­i­ties is en­sur­ing stu­dents’ safety and that is why GSAs are so im­por­tant. For some stu­dents, GSAs are the only place they have where they feel safe and ac­cepted. GSAs lit­er­ally save lives.”

Sarah and Stephen worry that the new law will cause teach­ers to hes­i­tate to in­form par­ents, for fear of break­ing the law, and that he­si­ta­tion could spell lead to the death of chil­dren.

Ashleigh Yule, a reg­is­tered Cal­gary psy­chol­o­gist spe­cial­iz­ing in autism and gen­der di­ver­sity, says the re­search is clear that “we see a con­ver­gence be­tween Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­der (ASD) and gen­der di­ver­sity that makes the is­sue more com­plex.”

How­ever, Yule is adamant that no ex­emp­tions in Bill 24 should be made.

“Stu­dents with ASD, just as stu­dents with­out ASD, may have un­sup­port­ive or abu­sive par­ents. No­ti­fy­ing par­ents that a stu­dent has at­tended a GSA may be un­safe for that stu­dent, re­gard­less of the stu­dent’s ASD sta­tus,” said Yule.

“Nu­ance in the law is not about ‘out­ing’ chil­dren,” said Sarah, who has fam­ily mem­bers who were mur­dered in the Holo­caust for be­ing Jewish. “It’s about rec­og­niz­ing the unique­ness of each person and each fam­ily.

“I’m very sus­pi­cious of the state want­ing con­trol over our chil­dren. We’ve seen where that has led in the past,” added Sarah.

“Most fam­i­lies are the safest places for their chil­dren,” said Stephen. “We love our chil­dren, more than Rachel Not­ley or David Eggen do.”

Both par­ents hope by telling their story, pres­sure will force the prov­ince to make some pro­vi­sion for safe, open-minded par­ents, es­pe­cially of chil­dren with spe­cial needs, to be told very early on if be­havioural changes be­gin af­ter join­ing a GSA.

“We saved our daugh­ter’s life, only be­cause we knew what was go­ing on with her,” said Stephen.

“We shud­der to think what might have hap­pened to her if Bill 24 had been the law two years ago.”

No­ti­fy­ing par­ents that a stu­dent has at­tended a GSA may be un­safe for that stu­dent, re­gard­less of the stu­dent’s ASD sta­tus. ASHLEIGH YULE, psy­chol­o­gist They were fa­cil­i­tat­ing and go­ing out of their way to tran­si­tion her into be­com­ing a boy with­out our knowl­edge. But what train­ing do they have about chil­dren with autism? ‘Stephen,’ an Al­berta par­ent of a teenager who joined a GSA


A Cal­gary mother be­lieves her autis­tic daugh­ter’s in­volve­ment with a gay straight al­liance at school may have contribute­d to other men­tal health strug­gles she ex­pe­ri­enced.

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