By ROSALYN ROY
PORT AUX BASQUES – Joan Chaisson admits to being very surprised when she got a phone call from someone at the Governor General’s office in Ottawa.
“In fact, at first I thought it was someone calling with a prank call,” says Chaisson via e-mail interview.
Chaisson is a co-founder of Autism Involves Me (AIM). She and co-founder April Billard, who formed the group in 2013, have been chosen to receive the Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) awarded by Rideau Hall on behalf of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
The MSM recognizes those who have made remarkable contributions in many fields of endeavour including advocacy, health care, research initiatives and humanitarian efforts. Their medals were awarded in the civil division of the decoration, which recognizes exceptional deeds accomplished over a limited period of time.
“I was nominated due to being a co-founder of the AIM (Autism Involves Me) group, which started in 2013. Also we were recognized for the work we did with the Port aux Basques Town Council, local businesses and citizens to create an autism-friendly community,” wrote Chaisson.
Lt. Governor Judy Foote made the announcement via Facebook on Thursday, Feb. 25. Although Chaisson knew before then, she was sworn to secrecy.
“I was home alone at the time and I almost burst wanting to tell someone! The lady told me that it was in strict confidence and anyone who knows me, knows how hard it is for me to not tell great news like this!”
This is not the first time that Chaisson and Billard have been recognized for their often innovative and pioneering efforts on behalf of people with autism. The two women and the group they built have been featured in national magazines and news media before, and have received awards and accolades too. But Chaisson is quick to point out that they’ve had some strong support along the way.
“I have been very honoured by the presentations and recognitions that have been given to me in the past. However, I always say that I accepted these honours on behalf of the citizens of our town and our autism families. Our citizens are outstanding and so accepting of those with autism spectrum disorder.”
Chaisson says that for the past nine years, Port aux Basques businesses and residents have become very aware of the characteristics of autism, their challenges and the ways that the community can come into their world, instead of forcing them to interact in our world.
“This has proven to be very successful, thus this is why the team from Today’s Parent (magazine), after being here for a week, said that Port aux Basques is the most Autism-Friendly Town in Canada.”
Although Chaisson doesn’t know who exactly nominated them for the award, she has found out that the nomination was submitted in 2017. Two people have also told her they were contacted to give references or answer questions about AIM’s accomplishments.
Initially, AIM was built as a support group, but it eventually developed into finding ways to build practical solutions for children and families. The group began fundraising to install sensory equipment and other necessary equipment, and even build sensory rooms in a local hotel and at schools.
“Ninety percent of these ideas originated from parents due to their challenges they had while travelling, visiting restaurants, attending medical appointments, focusing on school issues, etc.,” notes Chaisson. “Now that we are involved with the GoldRush Lottery and through private donations, we have moved back to being a support group once again.”
A former educator trained to help those with special needs, Chaisson also volunteers as a consultant for parents and continues to help them in any way she can. That means continuing to find new solutions as the children grow into adulthood.
“Our original children were young when we organized the group and some of them are now in high school or have graduated,” she points out. “Since autism is a spectrum, some children will go on to secondary education, some will be able to be employees in the public workforce and others will take part in stay-at-home occupations.”
Port aux Basques has been selected as part of a provincial adult occupational project, and Chaisson promises that AIM will do whatever it can to support the project and help it become a success.
“I am constantly receiving questions and inquiries from all over the world regarding how we became autism friendly. In fact, I will send in the book, ‘Becoming Autism Friendly’, to Ohio this week to a parent who wants to use it in her community. I am amazed at how all these people find me, and how far AIM has travelled around our globe.”
Once it becomes safe to travel again, Chaisson and Billard will accept their medals in person at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.