Ishaan Holloway's parents waited outside the room where therapy sessions with non-verbal autistic children and their parents were taking place. Ian Holloway and Mousumee Dutta watched as parents left with tears running down their faces.
When it was their son's turn for one-on-one therapy, they cried too, but with joy.
Ishaan spoke for the first time in his life. He was 10.
"I still tear up thinking about it," said Ian now, seven years later.
The speech therapist gave their son a lesson on the Aztec people, who lived in a mountainous valley. When she asked Ishaan if he would live there, he responded by pointing to letters on a special board, one by one, using a letterboard: "Only if they had elevators."
Not only could he write a sentence, his dad recalls, "he could joke … he was saying things we didn't know he knew."
There was no looking back from that point.
Ishaan is 17 now and he is on track to complete his high school diploma.
He has published poetry in Canada and abroad, and his writing won him the Young Collaborator of the Year from the Autism Parenting Magazine in the U.K.
As an advocate for the rights of disabled children, he has exchanged letters with the Prime Minister's Office and Alberta's premier.
The road to success wasn't easy for the Holloway family.
Family moves to Calgary for special schooling
When Ishaan was six, the family moved from Ontario to Calgary to admit the boy into a private school, where they paid over $15,000 a year. The school specializes in kids on the autism spectrum.
After realizing Ishaan's capabilities, and that he could communicate well by letterboard, Ishaan's parents approached the school multiple times to show the tremendous amount of progress he was making at home.
But they were informed the school did not have the resources to meet Ishaan's needs and that he was "too hard to teach" and was "unteachable."
Ishaan's parents had to bite the bullet. His mother began home-schooling full time. She left her job.
"Not every parent has the luxury to quit their job to support their child," Dutta said.
"Ishaan was only being made to count from one to 10 … he was capable of so much more and it frustrated him," she said.
I take a lot of pride in my mental math skills, and he would sometimes solve complex problems faster than I could. - Gurjot Sekhon, tutor
Gurjot Sekhon, one of Ishaan's tutors, called him the best math student he has ever taught.
"I take a lot of pride in my mental math skills, and he would sometimes solve complex problems faster than I could," Sekhon said.
Sekhon met the family through his university, where he was studying neuroscience and the methods schools use with autistic children.
In the five years Sekhon spent with Ishaan, they were able to progress from Kindergarten level math to Grade 10. Sekhon said the strategy was to challenge his skills.
"You can't keep telling him to add and subtract. If he is not challenged in a subject, he is bored," Sekhon said.
Funding and resources lacking
Psychologist Barbara Patterson said it can be common for schools to not be able to meet parents' demands due to a lack of funding and resources.
Teachers rely on therapists to come in for direct support.
"They have cut back on all these consultations … the teachers don't have the time nor do they have the capabilities to understand the needs of each child," Patterson said.
Unable to communicate anger and frustration, autistic children's emotions often spiral into behavioural outbursts.
Dutta has spent hours every day along with tutors since March 2015. In that time, Ishaan's communication has progressed from pointing to "yes" or "no" on a board, to an alphabetical letterboard, to a QWERTY board. Last year, he started using a standard keyboard.
Using his keyboard, Ishaan told his parents that he was called "stupid" and "good for nothing" at school.
"If the school had supported this family, this [hardship] wouldn't have been the case today," Sekhon said.
By Ishaan Holloway, August 2022
There rested a window of hope,
Never to say no,
For life is full of surprises,
There are ups and downs,
Highs and lows,
But life is too precious to be wasted,
So work through hardship,
And see magic unfold.
Alberta Health Services is responsible for providing therapists, counsellors and speech and occupational therapists to the schools.
In the spring of 2020, a change to the Alberta Education funding framework cut $30 million in funding for the Regional Collaborative Service Delivery, which supported Alberta Health Services in the delivery of things like occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical therapy in schools.
While school boards welcomed the flexibility, it ultimately meant less overall health-care staff in some schools.
Patterson said the solution lies in how the government is prioritizing its funding and school staffing.
"It's not for special needs right now," she said.
Because every child is so unique, parents are often expected to resort to home-schooling, Patterson said.
"But that's not fair because they're not teachers. They should have their own life."
They often lose their own identities, and after doing the job of several people, they burn out, she added.
As for Ishaan, he wants to continue advocating for students on the autism spectrum.
When asked in an interview what he would change about the world, using his keyboard he replied: "I would make the world treat people like me with dignity," and that one must "never judge a book by its cover."