New program is putting fear in its place
Thanks to generous community support, construction of Calgary’s first Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health has now begun. Through a partnership among Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and the community, the Centre will begin providing new services for young people and their families in the fall of 2021. Even before the Centre opens, donations to the Build Them Up campaign are making a number of crucial programs and research initiatives possible, including Facing Your Fears.
A program designed to help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) overcome their anxiety is changing the lives of Calgary families.
Facing Your Fears is an established cognitive behavioural therapy geared toward youth with high-functioning ASD. Brought to Calgary by experts at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and several clinics within Alberta Health Services, the program helps kids identify their worries and tackle them head-on.
'More crippling than the diagnosis'
It’s part of a five-year research project funded by community donations to the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and headed by Dr. Carly McMorris, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary and a member of ACHRI.
“We know that children with autism are at a heightened risk of experiencing anxiety, which is often more crippling than the diagnosis – it significantly impacts kids and families,” says McMorris.
“With the families we have been able to enroll in Facing Your Fears, we are seeing dramatic improvements, not just in the kids, but in the quality of life for the entire family.”
McMorris is collecting data for her national study that aims to understand how best to deliver the program and which families will benefit the most.
The Hodge family is one of many who have benefited. Isabella was recently diagnosed with ASD, confirming suspicions long held by her mom, Jennifer. Her little girl experienced multiple fears that were ever-present and debilitating — fears that held Isabella back from living her best life as an 11-year-old.
Dismantling the fears, one by one
“In the day-to-day, when your child won’t have a bath on their own, when they won’t sleep in their own bed, when they’re afraid of people stopping by the house and you don’t know where it’s all coming from, it’s a lot,” says Jennifer.
Guided by a team of experts that included psychologists, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists, Jennifer and Isabella spent 14 weeks learning to understand Isabella’s fears and how to dismantle them, one by one.
The program included classes, workbooks designed for both the parent and child, deep breathing techniques, new coping skills and strategies for self-calming, as well as a reward system to encourage Isabella along her journey.
One of the tools that helps them track progress is a method called the Stress-O-Meter, which asks kids to gauge their anxiety on a scale from zero to eight. In the beginning, sleeping alone was a solid eight for Isabella. By the end of the program, it was zero.
“We were very fortunate to get into this program. It was really, really helpful, “says Jennifer. “Will Isabella have new anxieties? Yes, of course. But now I know how to help her overcome them. We have the tools.”
“It’s so important for these kids to learn these coping skills for when they get out there into the world." - Jennifer Hodge, mom
McMorris says what they’ve seen with Facing Your Fears already is so encouraging they are growing the program to reach even more families in the community.
“Our goal is to expand this program to help kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders,” she says.
For Jennifer and Isabella, Facing Your Fears was an invaluable and empowering experience and Jennifer hopes the program continues so that more families benefit.
“It’s so important for these kids to learn these coping skills for when they get out there into the world. We are so grateful for the community support that makes this program possible,” she says. “And to know this is all part of research, that’s so important to us, to be part of something that’s going to help more people in the future.”
The new Centre will be one of the most robust research-intensive community-based mental health care facilities for young people in Canada, with a direct pipeline from discovery to care – all in one setting. In partnership with Alberta Health Services, the research initiatives involve several faculties at the University of Calgary, led by experts from the Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the Mathison Centre at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.