The Alberta advantage

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:59 AM ET

MONTREAL -- Forget for a moment the drastic improvement in the Edmonton Eskimos' special teams unit this year.

Sure, the Green and Gold have scored three return majors this year - three more than last year - and haven't imploded on coverage plays like last season, when the club gave up six touchdowns against. Yes, it might be the biggest area of improvement for the Esks as they prepare for tomorrow's East Division final in Montreal.

But for Edmonton special teams co-ordinator Noel Thorpe - who is in his first year with the club after six seasons in Montreal with the Alouettes - hopefully the biggest winner in his move to Alberta is his young son Peyton.

A month away from celebrating his fifth birthday, Peyton has autism - a brain development disorder.

While Thorpe won't publicly comment on whether his decision to move his family from Quebec to Edmonton was driven by his desire to get his son the best possible treatment for the disorder, it's fair to assume it played a role to come west.

Any wonderful parent wants the best for a child - and Noel and wife Erminia Russo definitely belong in that category.

Living in St. Albert and keeping their son's disorder quiet within the Eskimos until this fall, Thorpe is now revealing details that will surely help other parents facing similar issues. Officially diagnosed in September 2007, Peyton was giving his parents plenty of red flags soon after the 2005 Grey Cup.

"One of the things we noticed at the time was we had a babysitter - this was after the Grey Cup - we would come home and we noticed the interaction between the babysitter and Peyton was (non-existent). Between Emma (the older sister) and the babysitter there was a lot," said Thorpe. "He was happy being on his own - watching TV or playing in isolation. And I remember coming home one day and it struck me as odd."

There were other signs, like Peyton not responding when he heard his name. And probably the most gut-wrenching sign for the parents was his vocabulary was disappearing.

"I remember him being just over two years old and him in his high chair and I was feeding him dinner and he had a gaze in his eye. He would be looking out the window. Before he was very engaging," recalled Thorpe.

Initial hopes were he had a developmental delay. But then came the diagnosis of autism - a disorder that impairs social interaction, communication and some behaviour aspects.

Statistics claim one in every 150 children lives with it - and of those affected, three out of every four are boys.

Quebec has long waiting lists for help. And the government apparently cuts off funding support tools in the home at the age of six, leaving the school system to pick up the development price tag.

That is where the Alberta advantage comes into the picture. Since joining the Eskimos last November - being united with friend and head coach Danny Maciocia - Thorpe and his family have placed Peyton in the best possible situation to succeed long term.

To this day, there is still a long road to travel. Social interaction is an issue. He only says 15 words and doesn't string together a sentence. Unfortunately for Russo, one of those words isn't mom or mama.

"(But) we have seen the progress," said Russo. "What else could we have asked for?"

Peyton receives in-home three-hour sessions weekday mornings from a therapist.

"The therapist is teaching him how to play, teaching him how to interact and label (objects)," said Thorpe.

In the afternoons, the four-year-old hops the bus - a big step in his life - to an integrated preschool, where six of the 12 kids in his class operate at a normal level.

"You want to try and get him as many tools in the tool chest as possible before the age of five," said his father. At home, there are other tools, like pictograms on the walls, flash cards to learn words and a small trampoline in front of the TV.

"For you and I sitting, we feel grounded. He needs to feel pressure on his joints," explained Thorpe.

"In order to feel grounded, I will read him a story but he can't sit still. He may be able to sit still for two pages but then he wants to move around.

"In front of the TV, we have a trampoline, he is going to bounce and that makes him feel grounded. The therapists call that sensory timeouts."

In Alberta, the advantage is the funding for support in the home is available until the teenage years are over.

"The one thing (in this province) is your children are taken care of until 18," said Russo one morning this week when Peyton was working with his therapist at home. "That is huge."

Where Peyton will be in five years is anybody's guess.

Thorpe hopes his son is speaking in sentences in Grade 4 at that point, interacting with other children. But there is no trusted chart that shows where his progress will go.

"You've got to be really patient," added Russo. What is certain, though, is that Peyton is coming to the Grey Cup in Montreal next week if the Eskimos upset the Alouettes tomorrow in the East final.

"He can't tell us but he knows football is part of our lives," said Thorpe. Hopefully a few years from now, Peyton will be able to have a discussion with his father about the sport.


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