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A case manager and a mother of a child with autism, April Fournier advocates for kids and relates to parents

When April Fournier works with parents struggling to accept the fact that their child needs special education services, she can personally relate. Her 9-year-old son Asher has autism, so she easily empathizes with the complex range of emotions parents deal with, especially soon after a diagnosis.

When Asher and his twin Mya were examined at their two-year checkup, their pediatrician gave both children an excellent bill of health, but noted striking differences in their behavior, recalls Fournier, 38.

“Mya was chatting up a storm and all personality, and Asher was really quiet and introverted,” she says. “The doctor wondered if we had noticed the same.”

Fournier says she and her husband Kevin Gray had, of course, noted differences, but were so busy and sleep deprived “just getting through having twins” while also parenting their 8- and 10-year-old sons and working full-time, that they hadn’t yet recognized that the twins’ differences extended beyond personality.

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

So, she says, it was a bit overwhelming when Asher was assessed, determined to have autism, and connected with Maine Department of Education’s Child Development Services for early intervention services.

“It all started to click pretty quickly that he was on the autism spectrum. An early childhood special educator came in a couple of times a week to help us learn how to bring out his social skills and speech skills,” said Fournier, who lives in Portland.

She and her husband decided that Kevin would leave his job and stay home to help their son, one-on-one.

“He spent five days a week sitting on the floor, doing this work with our son. And in six months, there was a huge transformation. We saw this little boy in our universe and not somewhere else. He was realizing he didn’t have to cry and scream to have his needs met, and all I kept thinking was gosh, that really worked.”

“Having been on both sides, I feel I have a really unique skill set when I’m in these meetings…I’ve had meetings while holding babies, I’ve had meetings in parking lots, in homes, wherever it works.”

It was enough to get Fournier, a manager at Unum with a background in business, interested in going back to school to learn more about early childhood education. She says she was inspired to do for others what had been done for her son and family.

At age 3, Asher was no longer eligible for home visits, so he was enrolled in a special-needs preschool. Fournier took a job as a behavior technician at Providence Human Services in Scarborough and Springvale. That job involved going to families’ homes in the afternoons and evenings to provide behavior support for children ages 3-18, offering guidance for parents and creating plans for addressing particular needs.

“I’d talk with parents to figure out their biggest priorities. Do they want their kids to develop social skills? Be able to go to the grocery store? Get dressed on their own and sit through a meal?”

She was promoted to a supervisory role in Springvale, but the long commute interfered with her ability to be on-hand when Asher ran into issues at school, so she took a job as an ed tech at a preschool in Portland. That’s when she got a call from CDS, offering her a job as a case manager.

Fournier now works with families, chairing meetings where Individual Education Plans are created for children with special needs. Depending on the unique needs of each child, IEP meetings can involve special educators, school psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists, and, of course, the child’s parents. With her own experience as a mother sitting in those same meetings, she relates to the parents in a real way.

“Having been on both sides, I feel I have a really unique skill set when I’m in these meetings,” she says. “And I try to accommodate parent schedules. So I’ve had meetings while holding babies, I’ve had meetings in parking lots, in homes, wherever it works.”

As both a case manager and a mother of a child with autism, April Fournier, pictured here with her son Asher, has a unique perspective, and uses it to work with parents and advocate for kids with special needs. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Sarah Brydon’s 3-year-old twin daughters are two beneficiaries of those meetings.

“April was great at facilitating my daughters’ IEP meeting,” says Brydon, explaining that her daughters were born very prematurely and needed occupational, speech and physical therapy. “She kept the conversation moving, while making sure to include everyone’s perspective. She also made a point of acknowledging that it can be tough to hear what your kids can’t do and that our daughters are doing lots of things well. She’s so wonderful.”

Giovanna Hurley, a Child Development Services school psychologist, has worked with Fournier for several years and calls her a strong advocate for children.

“I love to have meetings with April. She goes out of her way and has a very nice way of communicating, partly because she understands things from a parent’s point of view, too,” says Hurley. “She’s very knowledgeable about the kinds of programs and therapies that are available for kids but doesn’t use a lot of jargon with parents. She’s caring and sensitive and positive.”

Lori Whittemore, director of Child Development Services REACH, says Fournier brings a lot of expertise and enthusiasm to her role.

“April is really great with families,” Whittemore says. “She’s compassionate and extremely culturally aware. She allows parents to process at their own rate because she’s done that, too. There are all kinds of emotions involved – grief, acceptance, denial. She honors parents in their process, works really hard to honor people’s cultures, but also helps them to understand that they really need the services. And she helps them to move forward.”

Fournier strives to move forward herself as well, despite some challenges.

She went through the Emerge Maine program, which trains Democratic women who wish to run for office, and took a run at House Seat 42 this year. She had to drop out of the race after being diagnosed with a neurological condition last fall.

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

That didn’t deter her from finishing her master’s in education with a concentration on early intervention at the University of Maine this spring. And she’s enrolling in a doctoral program in school psychology next summer at the University of Southern Maine.

In between mothering four children—they’re now 17, 15 and the twins are 9—she’s found time to complete the Tri for a Cure three times and serves on the board of Maine Roller Derby—she was an all-star player for five years and recently co-founded and manages the first all-indigenous women’s roller derby team—comprised of 20 women from tribes all over the world—that competed at the World Cup this winter in Manchester, United Kingdom. She’s involved with Pride Portland and was honored in June by serving as Grand Marshal of the annual Pride parade in Portland.

She says life is busy but great, and that Asher just finished fourth grade in public school and no longer needs one-on-one assistance.

“He’s gone from non-verbal and checked out to a mostly typical quirky little guy who loves Godzilla and Legos—and now has friends!”

Her “front-row seat” and personal experience in understanding the importance of early intervention services drives her to passionately advocate for CDS.

“We’re overextended, and the money doesn’t seem to get to early intervention as it should,” says Fournier, who has 260 active cases in a territory that covers all of Portland. “We know early intervention works, but no one seems to see a need to fund it,” she says, noting that a bill to provide more funding got stalled in the state Legislature this spring. “We need to invest in these kids.”

Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

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