April is Autism Awareness Month, and one organization devoted to the cause is British Columbia’s Canucks Autism Network (CAN). The non-profit organization is for kids who fall on the autism spectrum as well as their families. From swimming to biking, skating to soccer, CAN offers a wide variety of sports and physical activity classes, along with recreational programs such as camping and social events.
For children on the autism spectrum, participating in traditional recreational activities at their community centre can be an overwhelming experience that often isn’t able to take their unique needs into consideration. CAN programs are different. They provide a variety of educational and behavioural supports, such as visual schedules and picture cues to help create predictability and ease transitions, which can be difficult for kids on the spectrum. But CAN’s best resource is its volunteers.
“We are lucky to get high number of applications for volunteers, allowing us to be selective,” says Stephanie Jull, Director of Sports and Recreation at CAN. “It means we can look for people who are keen to see the kids succeed. Attitude is foundational to the program.” Having a large, motivated volunteer base means that there is a high ratio of staff to participants. This allows kids to work at their own pace and creates flexibility in the programs.
CAN doesn’t just offer opportunities for kids to participate in sports through its programs, it also offers an introduction to a healthy lifestyle and gives them the necessary skills to carry on functioning in the larger world as they explore recreational opportunities in their community.
For example, in one physical activity program offered to teens and young adults, the conditions are set up to mimic what the participants would encounter in a community gym. Some swimming lessons for older kids, meanwhile, will teach things like lane etiquette and what to expect in a variety of aquatic programs. When kids age out of the CAN programs, therefore, they have the skills and confidence to access the programs that are offered to them in their local community, allowing them to remain active.
In addition to sports activities, the Canucks Autism Network also offers social outings, family events, camping, and programs to teach transferable job-readiness skills. They also participate in community events and offer training to staff in community recreation centres on how to support kids with autism in their programs.
For an annual family membership fee of $25, kids with autism and their families can participate in any of CAN’s programs, ensuring that nobody is excluded because of income.
CAN aims to be a leader in enhancing the quality of life for families living with autism and takes the “I CAN” attitude to heart, creating programs that build self confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose in play, work and life. Keeping fit and physically literate is an important aspect.
“If you are a family living with autism in British Columbia, we hope that you’ll take a minute to learn more about us,” says Jull. “We’re still fairly young and are growing, with many exciting new things in store.”