Autism and a Political Career Collide in Dad's Two Worlds

Canadian Mike Lake uses his platform as MP to raise awareness.

September 28, 2012, 9:04 AM

Sept. 28, 2012— -- Mike Lake describes his autistic son Jaden as a "3- or 4-year-old trapped in a 16-year-old body," a boy who is nonverbal.

For Jaden, abstract thinking is a challenge and his most direct communication is reaching for his father's face and crying out "bababa" when he needs to be understood.

But that "beautiful simplicity" is enough for his dad.

"I lay down with him on the bed at night and he looks at me in communication mode," said Lake, 43. "Oftentimes, I just drift into his language ... He talks along with me at the same time bababa-ing. It's the strangest thing. We are not communicating anything concrete, not the world I am living in, but for us it is a connection."

Since 2006, Lake's world has been Canada's House of Commons, where he delves into the complex political issues of the day as a member of Parliament and secretary to the minister of industry.

But at home with Jaden, he enters a different world where speech doesn't matter as much as unequivocal love.

"I didn't get elected to Parliament on the autism issue," said Lake. "But as time has gone by, it's one world. It has allowed me a platform to get out there and raise awareness.

"We decided early on to include him in every opportunity we could and not to hide the family and to use the opportunities over time to share the story of an amazing kid and what life has been like for us."

Lake, whose family also includes wife Debi and 13-year-old Jenae, lives in Edmonton, Alberta. This week, he is in New York City speaking before the fifth annual World Focus on Autism, co-hosted by Autism Speaks and Ban Soon-taek, wife of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The world of autism is still a mystery. And while research has advanced, particularly in the area of genetics, it is still a puzzle to scientists. Some studies show autism strikes as many as 1 in 88 children, mostly boys.

"When something gets in his mind, he grabs my face in an escalating 'bababa' until he gets the explanation he needs," said Lake. "He is obsessed with dogs and will go nose to nose with any dog and he likes baking chocolate chip cookies and bowling Saturday mornings with Dad. "

But for Jaden, who is on the cusp of adulthood, the future presents mind-boggling challenges.

He has no sense of danger and will cross the street unaware of the traffic. Once, on the grounds of the House of Commons, he lunged for a German Shepherd security dog, grabbing its neck and going "mouth-to-mouth" with the animal.

Though he cannot communicate verbally, Jaden is capable of much that might translate into a future vocation: a 130 score in bowling, a job cataloging books at the library and making chocolate chip cookies.

"Here is a kid that when you first see him, his skills seem significantly affected, then all of a sudden you see him measuring things out and cooking," said his father.

He is also extraordinarily affectionate, not typical in autistic children. In a Canadian television interview with his father, ebullient Jaden is a far cry from Dustin Hoffman's character in the film "Rain Man," a robotic autistic adult.

"We've spent a lot of time being in his face and making sure we are physical with him and cuddling him," said his father.

Each year on April 2, which is World Autism Awareness Day, Lake delivers an impassioned speech before the House of Commons -- a very personal one.

"Mr. Speaker," he begins. "I never dreamt I'd have a son with special needs. But I can honestly say I couldn't be more proud of my boy. He is always quick with a high-five or a kiss, is never ever a bully, and loves everyone without a hint of judgment. I think we could all use a little more of that."

As a politician, Lake encourages "every family in North America" to meet their elected officials and educate them on autism.

"Bring your loved one with autism, I tell people," he said. "If you can't explain autism because the family member is acting up -- they can explain it better than you ever could."

Jaden was diagnosed at 2, but his parents knew there was something wrong before that.

"He wouldn't respond when calling him and at first we thought he had a hearing problem," said Lake. "Then we realized when he was two floors away and we turned on [the TV show] 'Barney' he came running down. He was not like a typical kid who once in a while ignores his parents.

"He would actually come to get us, really as a tool, for something he couldn't reach. He would push our arms up to the shelf in the pantry where the treat was he wanted."

But Jaden was clever at other things. He could put foam blocks with letters of the alphabet in order "without hesitation," according to his father.

All Kids With Autism Are Individual

Jaden's grandmother was the first to suspect autism when she read a book written by another mother, "Let Me Hear Your Voice," that described Jaden "perfectly."

All those with autism are different. "You have to be an expert at reading your own child," said Lake. "Jaden is unique -- he wants to talk but he can't. Other kids are completely silent."

Jaden gets excited about the film, "Sound of Music," Smarties (Canadian M&Ms) and being told concrete plans about the day's schedule. But he cannot articulate his feelings.

"People with autism have a real hard time, even highly functioning people," said Lake. "And they come across as odd -- and have great difficulty in their social lives."

So far, in a K to 12 school where Jaden has gone his whole life, his classmates have embraced him. He has been involved in musical theater, dancing in a production of "Oliver," and this year learning to play an old man, who walks across the stage with a cup.

But Jaden is incapable of telling his parents if he has a stomach ache and when his parents ask him, he might give a meaningless nod. "He wants to make us happy with the answer he gives," said Lake. "His default answer is yes."

They worry about his future, when they are not around to love and care for him, but hope Jaden can contribute with the skills he does possess.

"We have chosen to focus on what is in front of us," said Lake, not ruling out living or vocational opportunities "that are good for him."

Jaden has had intensive interventions -- about 36 hours a week — from age 2 to 5. Since then he has been in school with a full time aid. He can use an iPhone app to "communicate basic and concrete concepts," and his parents have chosen to focus on developing this as his primary mode of communication

Jaden's mother cried when he learned to kiss for the first time at age 11.

Lake, who worked for 11 years for his hometown ice hockey team, the Edmonton Oilers, said his relationship with Jaden surprises him in some ways.

"I am a very competitive person, so the idea of having a child with special needs would have terrified me," he said. "I had visions of my son playing in the NHL and graduating with honors. I look back and I can't imagine loving a kid more than I love Jaden. And I look back at every milestone and I'm every bit as proud of everything he's done.

"I always say that if we could snap our fingers and Jaden wouldn't have autism, we'd miss the Jaden we have now."

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