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Bringing Support to the Autism Community

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People should not have to move from their community to access treatment they or their children need.

That is the driving premise behind the Autism Society of RMWB’s five-year goal to create an autism centre to service not only this region, but other northern communities as well.

That vision is the inspiration of Kirsti Mardell.

A mother of three, her middle child, Quentin, was diagnosed with Kanner Type Autism (classic autism) two weeks after his second birthday in 2012.

According to Autism Canada, the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological condition that impacts normal brain development leaving most individuals with communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour.

The term “spectrum” refers to a continuum of severity or developmental impairment.

ASD symptoms can be very mild in one person and quite severe in another.

Individuals with severe autism conditions may have serious cognitive disability and unusual behaviour. This can include tantrums, self-injury, and aggression. Individuals with mild autism conditions, however, may seem more like they have personality differences making it challenging to form relationships.

“It was a complete shock to us and we started to look into everything we needed to do to help him be successful. It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.

“Once we received the diagnosis we faced the fact that Fort McMurray was not set up long-term for us to stay here forever.”

In the end, however, they decided to stay and try the services that Fort McMurray did have available.

“Being born and raised here, we didn’t know what living in other areas was like until the 2016 evacuation,” she admitted.

Turns out, evacuation was a “blessing in disguise.” Settling in Red Deer, the family was set up with supports and services not offered in Fort McMurray.

“It was amazing the amount of support offered in Red Deer compared to Fort McMurray. I believe the supports and services offered truly helped my son gain a lot more skills then he would have had, had we not been evacuated.

“My husband and I discussed staying in Red Deer … (but) I soon realized my heart was at home with my family and friends in Fort McMurray. I needed to continue my mission and work at making my hometown the community we want for our children.”

The return to Fort McMurray heralded a new beginning which included Mardell being Instrumental in the 2017 incorporation of the autism society and its vision for the autism centre.

It’s intended the centre will be a long-term care facility supporting children and adults with autism before diagnosis with early intervention, help receiving a diagnosis, and continual supports and services throughout the lifespan of the person and family dealing with autism.

Mardell foresees the centre filling in all the missing pieces such as social skills classes, vocational training, job supports and a sensory room.

“My husband’s family is mostly in Fort Chip and Fort McKay, and people have to move to Edmonton to receive the care they need to live a decent life. It shouldn’t have to be that way. We should have the supports here for all of the RMWB and all those closer remote areas like Fort Smith and La Loche.”

The society is currently working on partnerships, connecting with families, individuals and professional to make the autism centre a reality.

“We have met with so many agencies who have the same vision as us and who would also benefit from this. We are motivated to make it happen so not only my family, but all can continue to stay in the community.”

More information on the society and its services can be found on its Facebook page and by calling 587-452-9334. The society’s office has a lending shelf so people can donate sensory items so families can try them first before they buy them.

The society has items such as a wiggle seat, body sock, weighted vest and sensory bins. It is also a Therapyware Leader and can help supply sensory items to families and professionals working with children in this region. The

Society also offers support group meetings, and hosts family and community events throughout the year.


One of those people who arrived in Fort McMurray for a short time – six months - but eight years later is still here. Love this place, the people, the outdoor escapades and the incredible heart of the community. Work hard, volunteer lots and would rather sit and chat with someone than do housework. Passport always at the ready to jet off to some wonderful global locale. So much to see and do.