A partnership between the City of Surrey, the Vancouver Park Board, and the non-profit Canucks Autism Network (CAN) is making parks more inclusive for people with autism and other invisible disabilities.
Hallie Mitchell, Manager of Training and Community Engagement at CAN, said, “one of the most common things that people tell us is that they've gone to an event or program at a park or plaza and they have actually been asked to leave, or told that it wasn't a good fit for them.”
CAN has provided in-person and online training to parks and rec staff in Vancouver and Surrey to equip them with the knowledge and skills to better understand, support, and welcome autistic park users.
A key point emphasized in the training is the importance of predictability, said Mitchell. “Outdoor spaces are sometimes unpredictable. We don't know who will be accessing them, what might be happening in that space at that time, what the weather will be … there might not be a lot of information about how to navigate through that space.”
Thorough information on parks websites, detailed maps or signage on-site, and visual supports that illustrate the social rules of a public space can all help to make spaces more legible and inviting.
In addition to training, CAN also works with municipalities to provide sensory-friendly amenities at festivals and gatherings in parks and public spaces. For people who experience their sensory environment intensely, crowding, loud noises, and scents at events can easily become overstimulating.
Sensory Friendly Spaces—tents equipped with features like comfortable seating, fidget/sensory toys, books, games, and noise-cancelling headphones—provide a place to escape and relax should attendees become overwhelmed. Since first piloting a Sensory Friendly Space at an event with the City of Surrey in 2018, CAN has brought them to various outdoor events in Vancouver and Surrey.