In many suburban homes magnets clasp grocery lists or hockey schedules to fridge doors but in Angelina Trentin’s kitchen there are photos of juice, yogurt and cookies. Her 12-yearold, Robert, lopes in and grunts, pointing to his favorite treat. It took Angelina Trentin and her late husband, Marco, three weeks to teach their severely retarded son to point, rather than to scream and shove for snacks. Part of a program to help parents train their retarded or autistic children, the simple idea was conceived by Florence Lancashire, one of seven Toronto-area women—each, herself, a mother of a
mentally handicapped youngster. “Parents of the handicapped are best equipped, through experience, to help those in the same situation,” says Dr. Malcolm Garber, a professor at the On-
tario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), who began the program two years ago. “Unlike many professionals, they don’t make judgments or tell parents what they should do with their
kids. They simply teach parents how to teach.”
The Garber outreach program has been described by Professor Leonard Kaplan of Michigan’s Wayne State University as more “professional” and effective than comparable programs in 40
U.S. communities. “Because these women have been through similar problems, parents readily accept them into their homes and listen to them,” he says.
Other Canadian groups have recognized the value of parents helping one another. The Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded has “Pilot Parent” programs at nearly 30 of its 390 chapters across the country, matching parents of retarded newborns with experienced volunteers. (There are 700,000 retarded persons in Canada.) And Toronto’s Clarke Institute of Psychiatry
has encouraged parents of autistic children to meet informally to discuss their mutual problems. (Autism, a mental condition of undetermined cause characterized by a withdrawal from reality, afflicts four out of every 10,000 Canadians.)
But Garber’s program takes the concept of parent help several steps further. Paid $100 for 20 hours’ work each week, the women are trained intensively in behavioral modification techniques before visiting the homes. On regular visits, they urge parents to select goals for their child, design a series
of tasks to reach the goal, and give guidance along the way. The child’s favorite treats—raisins, candies, hugs or whatever—are given as rewards for completing tasks. Punishment is not used.
For Angelina Trentin, it meant that each time Robert wanted a snack, she lifted his hand and pointed at a picture. When he simply yelled or pushed her, she ignored him and didn’t give a treat. He soon caught on.
To date, 143 families have been visited regularly by the Garber-trained parents. This fall, Ontario legislators will be asked to continue funding the program at $90,000 a year. “It’s effective and very good,” says Faith Mills of the ministry of community and social services. “If only four children become more manageable and remain home as a result, the program has justified itself financially,” says OISE program co-ordinator Mary Perry. One year’s institutional care costs about $18,000 per child.
In human terms, the program’s worth to parents is immeasurable. Says Angelina Trentin: “If I die before Robert, at least now I know he will be able to do some things for himself.” But, for some, the reward comes too late. After months of coaching by his father, Robert finally repeated his first and only word, “papa”—15 minutes after Marco Trentin died.
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