Promoting inclusion and mental well-being | Promouvoir l’inclusion et le mieux-être mental
Inspirations Articles / Inspirations | Blogger articles connects parents and specialists, and reveals founder’s true self

Rachel Ricci, founder of Caden’s Lighthouse, in the gym area of her new centre.
Montreal - Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Mika and his mother May Al Othman out for a walk in NDG. (Photos, May Al Othman)

By Valentina Basilicata

May Al Othman has made it her mission to empower autism parents across North America. Amidst a global pandemic and while struggling to pay for private services for her own four-year-old son, this single mom of two launched earlier this year.

“We believe in creating an optimistic community of autism parents,” said Al Othman, in explaining how the name of the organization was formed.

This innovative platform connects parents with private autism specialists across Quebec and eventually the rest of Canada. Free to use, this platform will also guide parents through the federal and provincials benefits, the school system and many other questions new autism parents have.

“It allows them to get answers to their questions immediately through live support,” explains Al Othman.

Licensed behavioural therapists, speech-language pathologists, nutritionists, occupational therapists and more are listed on the site along with their hourly rates. With just a few clicks, parents can find local services, support, communities as well as therapists, and learn from the experiences of other parents.

Al Othman knows how life-altering an autism diagnosis can be and how hard it is to find the right help for non-neurotypical kids. Just six years ago, before having children, she and her husband left Lebanon and moved to Montreal in search of a better life. “I lived through two wars, countless riots and civil unrest. I’ve been held at gunpoint,” she recounted. “I’ve had experiences I wouldn’t want my kids to go through. So I would have never had a kid in Lebanon. That’s the main reason why I came here.”

The couple quickly settled into their new environment. They welcomed son Mikael (Mika) in 2015 and daughter Luna in 2018, while Al Othman was working in project management at Bombardier Recreational Products. She is a business major, with a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Certification.In May 2018, this family’s journey took an unexpected detour when medical professionals diagnosed two-year-old Mika with autism.

Under Quebec’s rules, children with autism qualify for publicly-funded therapy until the age of five. Yet the waiting lists are long, and some children age out before they make it to the top of the list. Mika has been on that list since he was two; he has yet to receive any government-funded therapy. His mother has been paying out-of-pocket in the meantime, thanks in part to a successful GoFundMe campaign in 2019. She says the cost for therapy can average thousands of dollars a month.

Since experts agree early intervention is key, many parents desperately turn to private therapy, and using telehealth services has slowly grown in popularity over the past few years. The coronavirus pandemic and consequent social distancing measures have spurred a much greater demand. Autimist helps to fill that void.

“When COVID-19 happened, we saw that parents didn’t have access to interventions. Some professionals weren’t equipped for teletherapy–they didn’t have the software; they weren’t sure it was secure. That’s when we said, ‘Let’s start with launching the telehealth platform because it’s easy to use something off the shelf.’ That’s why we launched that part of Autimist first.”

Eventually, Autimist will expand to allow parents to keep all therapy-related documents online in one convenient, secure record. The same record will be accessible to all therapists working with the child, making it possible for parents and specialists to consistently track progress and goals.

“Given the right tools, parents are more than capable to take charge of how to manage their children’s development plan,” Al Othman pointed out. “As an early stage social impact startup with the goal of empowering autism families through technology, this is just the first step. We’re part of the Concordia University district 3 innovation program, and we’re looking to add more features to help parents manage other parts of special needs parenthood in addition to therapy.”

Through her work with Autimist, Al Othman started talking to autistic adults and discovered she had many common traits. In a follow-up interview weeks before the publication of this edition of Inspirations, she wrote to share that in October 2020, she was diagnosed with autism (Aspergers) herself. “My therapist explained that late-diagnosed females are more common these days since we tend to mask, camouflage it. So today, at 33, I discovered that how I feel, think and behave is not like everyone else, and my photo-realistic visual thinking is apparently not how everyone thinks. So, I’m navigating this new optimistic outlook as well,” she said.

She and her partners are also working on a series of informative parenting articles (written with an optimistic spin) geared toward special needs parents.
“There are a lot of parents of kids with special needs who are intellectual, they are positive and want to enjoy life with their kids. They want to be informed and get that information without the shadow of sadness and medical [jargon].”

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Valentina Basilicata is an emerging fiction writer as well as a professional wordsmith with nearly 20 years of experience as a communications specialist and freelance journalist/editor. She is also the proud mom of two boys.