Education Series: Painting a Hopeful Picture for Ottawa Families

Thinking in Pictures Educational Services (T.I.P.E.S.) has been bridging the gaps in Pervasive Developmental Disorder treatment in Ottawa for over five years. Sisters Deborah and Jennifer Wyatt spearheaded the enterprise.

If you tell a child with autism that it’s raining cats and dogs outside, you might get a blank stare in return. Seeing as most children with this particular type of Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) generally think in pictures, they probably would envision animals falling from the sky.

It could take five trials to help one child with autism understand a concept like this or master a skill, while it could take another upwards of 1000. This is the nature of working with children with exceptionalities. It involves intensive educational programs that entail long hours, varied types of professional counsel and therapy, incredible persistence and lots of patience. Thankfully, there are not-for-profit organizations around to help out. Take, for example, T.I.P.E.S. – a multifaceted service for children with all exceptionalities, appropriately broken down to stand for Thinking in Pictures Educational Services.

“We’re known to be doing about six things at once,” laughs Deborah Wyatt, 27-year-old co-founder of T.I.P.E.S. Her twin sister and co-founder Jennifer Wyatt smiles and chimes in, “it can be chaotic. But it’s always organized chaos – and it’s so worth it.”

In 2005, after working at camps and CHEO’s parent resource centre throughout their young adulthood, the Wyatts decided there was an undeniable scarcity of services available to parents whose child had been diagnosed with an exceptionality like autism. “We watched families lose homes and cars while trying to get help for their child. Many hit a brick wall in terms of options,” says Jennifer. “We wanted to cater to all families, regardless of the diagnosis – with all of the services they need under one roof.”

In between their own higher education in both Ottawa and the United States, forfeiting extra income and spearheading every aspect of their business concept – then 23-year-old Deborah and Jennifer built T.I.P.E.S. from the ground up. After nabbing massive development company Minto as their corporate sponsor, the ladies went from tending to a handful of children in a house to working with over 150 families out of T.I.P.E.S.’ Kanata location. In establishing T.I.P.E.S., the two have led slightly atypical lives compared to other 23-year-olds but they strongly believe their service was, and still is, needed. “It’s easy to have so much drive when there are noticeable holes in the system,” says Deborah. “A cancer patient needing treatment will get it. A child who needs insulin will get that. This is what these children need.”

Combining their own decade of experience, skilled staff of social integration experts, speech pathologists and psychologists – the T.I.P.E.S. team crafts specific behavioural programs for each child’s exceptionality using the revised Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills, a system which examines a number of behavioural categories across a wide set of skills we should all have at a young age. From that assessment, using Applied Behaviour Analysis principles, many children on the spectrum need the recommended 40 hours per week of Intensive Behaviour Intervention. This requires extreme patience and time, says Deborah, but when a child who was entirely non-communicative upon entry to the program advances to verbal communication that would leave an outsider in the dark about his/her disorder their work has paid off.

“When a child walks in our door, you really never know. All you can do is try with each one,” she says.

Such was the case with Lance Laporte’s son Nicholas, who at age two was visibly plateauing in development compared with his twin sister. After waiting 10 months to see a CHEO specialist, who delivered Laporte with what he believes was an uninformative and less-than-optimistic diagnosis — he sought answers on his own. Laporte was pointed towards Dr. Jeff Sherman, an acclaimed psychologist with T.I.P.E.S. who had led some children to the path of recovery through intensive supervision and treatment.

“When Nicholas started with T.I.P.E.S. in 2008, he was non-verbal, throwing tantrums and frustrated,” Laporte states. “He went from nothing to being talkative, social, independent and just a really sweet kid. If he were to be re-diagnosed today, I don’t know if he would be labelled a child with autism.” As Lance speaks, Nicholas can be heard singing and playing piano in the background. Upon hearing the music behind him, Laporte chuckles. “You see? There’s something else I never would have imagined four years ago.”

As well as recently launching a private academy called Edelweiss for children transitioning from T.I.P.E.S. into the classroom, the entrepreneurial Wyatt twins have significant plans for the organization moving forward. And amidst the sometimes “organized chaos” of running a business, the two admit to working incredibly well as business partners and having generous support from friends and family.

“Basically, if we know you, we’re going to get you involved in some way,” laughs Jennifer. “We fix toilets, our wonderful parents and grandparents build furniture and make crafts for fundraisers – you name it, we’ll avoid spending money so that it can all go to the kids.”

And that’s the picture they think in. Despite the education, awareness and changes still needed, the T.I.P.E.S. family, consisting of staff, parents and children alike, will continue adding to the bigger picture, that every child deserves a chance.