OTTAWA (CCN) — Dee Gordon, a Catholic mother of three, walked to Ottawa from her home in Etobicoke North outside Toronto in the dead of winter to raise awareness of the autism crisis.
“It was so incredible I was able to make this walk,” said Gordon in an interview from her home. She said it has changed her spiritually and made her stronger as a person. “I wasn’t sure I could complete this walk when I started it.”
She said she decided to start her walk Jan. 15 because the struggle against snow, wind and cold represents the struggle those with autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) like her son Jacob, 14, experience every day.
“Every single day, even the hottest day of July is like the biggest snowstorm in January for my son,” she said. Every day is plowing through the snow for him and other children with autism.”
It seemed like it was “uphill all the way” and against the wind in extremely cold temperatures that often hovered around the -20 mark.
Though she trained for the walk, she experienced a bout of vomiting during her first couple of days that broke blood vessels in her eyes and by the third day she temporarily lost her vision.
“All I could see was headlights,” she said.
Her feet began to bleed, causing a great deal of pain, requiring her to bandage them every day.
That she was able to continue despite the physical hardship and pain she attributes to God’s grace and seemingly miraculous interventions that encouraged her to keep going at those moments when she felt it was impossible to go further.
Gordon’s journey began in the wee hours of Jan. 15 with a first stop at the perpetual adoration chapel at her home parish St. Benedict’s. Her priest, Rev. Michael Pace, brought her communion and prayed for her.
She said she was amazed at how, when she was at her lowest ebb, she would hear cars honking, people clapping, and people would join her on the walk, sometimes accompanying her for 15 kilometres or more, helping to keep her spirits up.
She borrowed an orange pylon from a young neighbour with autism who collects them. Each night she would mark her journey with the pylon before heading to her sleeping accommodation. The next morning, she would return to the pylon and begin the trek anew.
Gordon reached Parliament Hill on Jan. 29, to be greeted by her Etobicoke North MP Kirsty Duncan and Senator Jim Munson who has championed autism awareness efforts on Parliament Hill, and by people from several charities.
Her son’s godmother drove Jacob to Ottawa to join her as she was greeted outside Centre Block. The sun was shining and Duncan presented her with a bouquet of roses. “I held up this bouquet of roses and waved them back and forth to all the people who were looking,” she said.
Then she spoke of the need for a pan-Canadian strategy to provide support to the growing numbers of people with ASD in Canada. Inside Centre Block, she received a standing ovation in the Senate and later inside the House of Commons.
Gordon said when she opened the big doors in Centre Block to leave she saw “the biggest blizzard I had ever seen.” She was delighted because the wind and snow would help “everyone to understand what this walk was about for all these children with autism.”
When she returned to her hotel room, she removed her boots and the bandages from her feet. “My feet were completely healed. I could not believe my feet were not bleeding,” she said.
“It’s kind of scary for me,” she said. “I knew how bad my feet were.” Her vision is now completely fine.
Her older son Timothy, 26, who accompanied her in a vehicle on the drive had several times urged her to call an ambulance, but Gordon refused, because it would make her fall behind on her walk.
Along the way she met many children with autism who stopped by the side of the road, asking to sign her petition. “Some looked up at me and asked me, ‘Are you going to fix my autism?’ It pulled strings on my heart,” she said. “No, I’m not going to fix your autism but I’m going to help you live with your autism better. They really got excited. We weren’t saying there’s something wrong with them, we’re saying it is gift from God. Autism is a label that people give you; autism is not something God labels you with.”
Even non-verbal autistic adults were sending her messages. During the past year, Gordon wore a set of bells on her side to remind her of the voices of children who are non-verbal. “Each step that I’ve taken along this journey I have heard those bells ringing. Even when I couldn’t see, I could hear. I can’t even explain how blessed I am to be able to talk about this.”
All along the way, Gordon met with mayors, councilors, charitable groups and people who were really “embracing the journey and the awareness of autism.”
In addition to support from her local MP, Leeds-Grenville MP Gord Brown, who has connections with the hotel industry, was able to arrange free accommodation for Gordon along her route.
Gordon hopes her walk will help provide the supports and early intervention programs for autistic and ASD children that she found lacking when her son Jacob began to show signs of significant problems.
She had successfully raised Krystal, 27, and Timothy, but by the time Jacob came along she was unprepared for his aggressive behaviour and meltdowns that left her shunned by many of her friends and barred from some institutions such as schools and daycares that could not handle her son. She discovered that in some instances staff were physically abusing him.
In 2007, Senator Munson and Senator Art Eggleton issued the report Pay Now or Pay Later, on Autism Families in Crisis, that Gordon hopes will be implemented.
Her petition can be accessed through her website www.walktoottawa.org