Saskatchewan Family Lauds Care Alberta Gives Autistic Son

By Janet French for the Saskatoon StarPheonix

In the nine months since he left Saskatchewan, life has turned around for five-year-old Gabriel Brkich.

The autistic boy didn’t know what scissors were used for when he
left the village of Kenaston, about 80 kilometres south of Saskatoon. Instead
of playing catch, he’d throw the ball up over his head. His parents would
hold his hand constantly when the family went out for fear he would wander

“If you wanted to go north, he wanted to go east,” his father Greg
Brkich said with a chuckle.

Worried Gabriel would never get the early intervention treatment they thought he needed, his parents left their lives in Saskatchewan behind careers, friends and the family farm — to move to Calgary. In Calgary,
Gabriel has 40 hours a week of one-on-one therapy at home, in preschool
and at gymnastics class. The Alberta government picks up all of the $60,000
annual tab.

“(He’s made) awesome progress,” Brkich said of his son. “The therapists say compared to other kids they work with he’s doing excellent. They don’t think he’s going to have a problem in life at all.”

Autism is a disability that usually appears within the first three years of a child’s life. It affects neurological development and causes problems with processing information, communicating, learning and interacting with others, depending on the severity of the disability.

In addition to behavioural therapists, Gabriel works with an
occupational therapist and a speech language pathologist once a week. The
province gives the family $4,000 worth of respite care each year and a
clothing allowance.

It’s a far cry from the kind of treatment he had access to in Saskatchewan, Brkich said.

“We would have been assigned a block of appointments and we would
have had to drive Gabriel up to the city, from Kenaston to Saskatoon, to the
appointments, and they certainly wouldn’t have been all afternoon,” he

“And once that block was used up, you would have gone to the bottom of the
list on the waiting list.”

The Alvin Buckwold child development program in Saskatoon holds a
special 10-hour-a-week preschool for autistic children three and four
years of age, but enrolment is limited. The program also runs only during the
school year.

Health regions are responsible for assessing autistic children in
Saskatchewan and co-ordinating services to meet their needs, said Roger
Carriere, executive director of the community care branch of Saskatchewan

Although he couldn’t say whether an autistic child in Saskatchewan
would have access to fully funded in-home behavioural therapy, he admits
“it wouldn’t be typical, no.”

The frequent hands-on treatment Gabriel Brkich receives, called
intensive behavioural therapy, isn’t widely available in Saskatchewan
because the government won’t pay for it, Brkich said.

Despite a November Supreme Court of Canada ruling telling provinces
they are not required to pay for expensive early intervention therapy,
Brkich thinks Saskatchewan should fund it to save money in the long run.
“(If we stayed in Saskatchewan), he probably would have ended up in
a group home, not being able to hold a job and the government would have had to support him for the rest of his life until he died, which might be 80
to 90 years, which is going to cost millions of dollars, assuming he would
live that long,” Brkich said. “If they’d just spend the money now when they’re
very young . . . you can have a lot of success.”

Although Saskatchewan is home, the Brkich family is considering
staying in Alberta for good. Gabriel’s mother Diane has found a full-time
job and his two brothers like their new home.

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