Mother finds acceptance for autistic son in Moncton's 'geek' community
School inclusion failed 15-year-old Jayden Moore, but he has finally found a place he belongs
A mother's search for inclusion and acceptance of her son finally has a hopeful chapter, thanks to New Brunswick's "geek" community.
For the first time, Christine Roberts says her son, Jayden (the Withertamer) Moore, is being seen for what he can do, rather than for what he can't.
Jayden, 15, is a talented, self-taught sculptor. The figures he creates from clay are colourful characters from his imagination and favourite video games.
"We understand that school is a struggle for Jayden, but this is one thing that's not a struggle for him," Roberts said. "This is something that he excels at."
His alias, the Withertamer, comes from the popular video game Minecraft. A Wither is a hostile and aggressive demon, so someone who can tame one would be at the height of their game.
In the apartment where Roberts lives with Jayden and his older brother, there are TV tables everywhere covered with different colours of polymer clay and figures in various states of completion.
"He's been doing this since he's been about four," Roberts said of Jayden's sculpting. "I lucked out — I just bought clay one day and he started making things. Just little things at first, and it evolved from there to these amazing detailed pieces of art."
When asked how he creates his sculptures without a pattern or any instructions, Jayden, who doesn't talk a lot, is very matter-of-fact.
"I just make it piece by piece and put it together. It's something I do."
Acceptance has been a struggle
Roberts has been fighting for inclusion for her son since he started school.
Jayden is diagnosed as "moderate to high functioning" on the autism spectrum, and he has a sensory disorder which makes him sensitive to noise and light.
He started junior kindergarten at the age of four when the family lived in Ontario, and it was quickly obvious that school would be difficult.
"I can say that my kindergartner has been suspended from school," Roberts said of Jayden's "rough start."
"I would drop him off at 9 o'clock in the morning and get the call to come and get him at 10."
Jayden had trouble sitting in groups and would often go and hide in his cubby, where it was quiet.
There was no belonging, there was no teaching the way the child learns, there was just punishing him for what he couldn't do.- Christine Roberts
Roberts was told that his disruptive behaviour wasn't severe enough to warrant support from an educational assistant, just bad enough to send him home.
Roberts and her children moved to New Brunswick when Jayden was in Grade 2, hoping her extended family would be able to help. Within a week, Jayden's school days were modified and he was dismissed at 11:30 a.m.
Jayden attended "four or five" schools in Moncton from Grade 2 to Grade 5, according to his mother, and "there wasn't any inclusion in any of them."
"There was no belonging, there was no teaching the way the child learns, there was just punishing him for what he couldn't do."
Inclusion didn't work
When Jayden was in Grade 5, Roberts said, she had no choice but to quit her job to stay home with her son. He was spending most of his school day in a seclusion room, or else the principal was calling her to pick him up because of his poor behaviour.
Roberts explained that while her son scored in the 98th percentile in testing for block design, which measures your ability to mentally manipulate both two and three-dimensional figures, his overall processing speed was so slow it couldn't be measured.
Without an educational assistant to keep him on track, Jayden would "melt down" and he was labelled "aggressive and non-compliant," Roberts said.
"He would sit under his desk and cry. He had no friends at this point … he didn't go out for lunch or recess, and there was no academics. There was no social. It was just all bad."
Roberts has a bachelor's degree in education and has home-schooled her son for the past five years.
Jayden said he doesn't have many memories of the classroom, but added, "I don't think I like too much about school."
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New Brunswick's inclusion system has been under fire for years from parents and teachers who say it isn't working as intended.
In the government's recent green paper on ways to improve the education system, inclusion is raised as something the province does well.
"Our province is highly regarded for our leadership in inclusive education," it says.
Community opens arms
As Jayden's mom and full-time teacher, Roberts has encouraged his sculpting. This year, she said, she has seen her son "fly."
After knocking at the door of every politician who would listen, Roberts found a sponsor for Jayden to attend Moncton's Geekfest.
The comic, gaming and pop culture convention is held annually by a non-profit organization led by Lily Babineau.
She describes herself as "a big old geek" and said everyone is welcome and accepted, whatever their interest.
Jayden set up a table and sold his figures for $10 each.
"His talent was ridiculously amazing," Babineau said. "I've probably used the word 'amazing' a million times, but I really can't think of another word to describe it because it was fantastic."
Watching Jayden sell his figures, Roberts said, was the first time she'd looked at him and "there was no struggle."
"I got to sit back and watch him in his own element and it was a beautiful thing … he was in an environment where everybody would just look at him for what he could do and not the deficits," she said, her voice breaking.
"I was so proud. There is lots of times when I've been reduced to tears … but to see him being appreciated. To see him smile — he smiled."
There's two roads this can go down, and I'm really trying to get him down the good one.- Christine Roberts
Jayden said meeting people at the event who liked his sculptures and wanted to buy them made him "a little happy."
His mom laughed and said it made her more than a little happy. She has nightmares of what the future could hold for Jayden when she is no longer able to care for him.
"I got to see a glimpse of the future I wanted him to have, and not the one that ends up in an institution because there's nowhere else," Roberts said. "There's two roads this can go down and I'm really trying to get him down the good one."
After Geekfest in September, Roberts heard about the Downtown Moncton ArtWalk and tried to register Jayden to take part.
The problem was, it costs about $350 in artist fees and host fees to participate and Roberts, who receives social assistance, had no way to afford it.
When Babineau and the Geekfest board of directors heard that, they all chipped in to help and the Comic Hunter in downtown Moncton offered Jayden space to set up.
"The majority of us are parents," Babineau said. "We would want people to help our kids … all we want to do is see Jayden succeed and if kicking in a couple of dollars here and there is going to do that, then we're game."
'It just filled our hearts'
Since taking part in Geekfest and Moncton's ArtWalk, Jayden has received his first commission from a studio, asking him to take a drawing and create a sculpture.
"The fact that he will do things that other people want him to do and not just what he wants to do is huge because people on the spectrum are seen as being inflexible," Roberts said.
Jayden has also created sculptures for people of their pets, working from photos.
Babineau can't wait to see what he will do next.
"Jayden picking up clay and modelling is like somebody picking up a pencil and instantly knowing how to draw a famous painting. His talent is unmatched. I know the community has accepted him and welcomed him in."
"My whole goal was to be inclusive and accepting and to have somebody like Jayden who never did anything like this to step so far out of his comfort zone. It just filled out hearts."
Memorable Mother's Day
Roberts has a stack of letters and notes from the past decade that document her battles with educators, bureaucrats and politicians to have her son included in the public classroom.
Now she can add notes from people like Babineau, who see what Jayden can offer.
She hopes her son will return to school and she's convinced he could be a good student if he given the opportunity.
"Inclusion is hard work and it shouldn't be," Roberts said.
Over the past two months, the connections Jayden has made led to a tour of the New Brunswick College of Art and Design. After the tour, Jayden said he had one question: when can I start?
Jayden will take part in Merry Geekmas, another Geekfest event, on Nov. 10.
Roberts said New Brunswick's "geek" community has given her family something school couldn't.
"Acceptance. That's something that sounds so small that has such a big impact on not only me but Jayden, our whole family. It just makes everything easier.
"You know when you're not always swimming against the tide or pushing that rock up the hill. It feels like you've got somebody helping you push."
Of all the figures her son has sculpted, her favourite is the one he gave her last Mother's Day.
It is two foxes curled up together, a mother and child, surrounded by flowers.
"The one little fox is sitting on the back of the other and winking, you know," Roberts said. "So I know Jayden knows how hard I fight."