By Deborah Morrow - The Navy League of Canada
As a small child, Christopher lived in a disconnected chrysalis without the ability to decipher ordinary sounds and could not make social connections. As he grew it became apparent that he suffered from a constellation of autism markers — the inability to read social cues, unusual behaviours, remarkable mathematical abilities and perfectionism. When his mother Barbara put him in front of the mirror and asked who he saw, he would always say, “No-one. I am invisible.”
But soon, something remarkable would happen. When he was 12, the family was at a May Day parade and Christopher pointed to a marching group of Sea Cadets and said, “I want to be like that.”
“I was terrified,” said Barbara, “because, quite frankly, his behaviour was unusual, but when we went to the first training night, all the Commanding Officer said to me was, ‘Sea Cadets is not a place where we set limits on what children can do. Don’t worry. We’ll see you later. I’ve got this.’”
The rules, reinforcement, and structure were stabilizing; Christopher made a connection and found belonging that was difficult to find outside the family, and teachers noticed the changes in his behaviour almost immediately. He adored wearing his uniform and looked after it with pride and purpose. “There was a beautiful transformation taking shape. Structure made him thrive,” says Barbara. “There he blended in somehow and we soon learned he was not the only one who struggled. Lots of the Cadets seemed to have their own stories but felt secure with solid leadership, clear expectations, and no judgment.”
Standards, community service, leadership, seamanship, citizenship and comradeship gave Christopher a fulfilling sense of place in the world. Barbara describes a pivotal moment in her son’s life: “While getting ready for Cadets, he looked into the mirror to check his uniform and I asked him, ‘What do you see?’ He replied, ‘I see a Sea Cadet,’” remembers Barbara.
“My son can play an instrument and knows how to sail,” says Barbara. “I could not have done this myself. No professional ever advised me to put my son in the Cadet programme and I am baffled by that to this day. I have no idea why this programme is not promoted by schools and psychologists; it is a well-kept secret from the public and I can’t figure that out.”
The Royal Canadian Sea Cadet program took her son, a boy with a poor life’s prognosis, and developed him into a socially appropriate, skilled young man with limitless possibilities.
Author’s note: Names have been changed to respect privacy.