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Vancouver park board to train staff on autism spectrum disorder

The goal is to eventually create work opportunities for autistic residents

By Anna Steshenko , in City , on March 7, 2017

The Vancouver park board is about to begin training sessions to teach staff about autism spectrum disorder.

It is the first municipal agency of Metro Vancouver to initiate a program increasing public’s awareness of this illness, also referred to as ASD.

The plan comes as a result of commissioners’ unanimous vote in the fall. The aim is to “change the way people with ASD are viewed and valued in society,” according to the board motion

“Since I was elected into the board, I realized I could start doing something at the municipal level to start narrowing the ‘gaps’ between ASD and non-ASD residents,” said Erin Shum, the park board’s vice-chair.

The Autism Society of B.C. defines autism spectrum disorder as “a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, and restricted or repetitive behaviour.” It impacts boys more often than girls, and there is no cure. However, the illness can be treated.

The goal is to ensure park staff learn about autism, provide appropriate services for those with the disorder, and eventually create work opportunities for autistic residents.

Shum said the board members supported the motion as it will make Vancouver a more socially inclusive society.

The initiative has personal meaning for Shum. She has been working with children with ASD as an education assistant.  She says people are not aware of ASD, so often they do not know how to react when a child or an adult displays ASD behaviour.

Shum wants to change that. She worked closely with Autism Society of B.C. to draw the attention of Metro Vancouver municipalities and create more public awareness about autism spectrum disorder.

According to Bonnie Stein, a program manager at the B.C. autism society, the training of public community personnel is crucial for making communities more inclusive of people with ASD and it will contribute to sustaining their employment.

In addition, Vancouver park board’s program of autism awerness will not only be inclusive of people with ASD, but of individuals with other developmental illnesses as well.

“Our public program will not be differentiating people with autism from people with Down syndrome or any other developmental disability,” said Shum.

Shum believes this motion will change the way people with autism are treated and therefore create a more comfortable environment for them in community.

Erin Shum, the vice-chair of the Vancouver Park Board

The Vancouver board is not the only public space in the city to begin engaging in ASD inclusiveness.

The same week as the park board adopted its motion for ASD inclusiveness, the Vancouver International Airport introduced a program providing assistance for travelers with autism.

The I CAN Fly program supplies individuals and families with a special resource tool kit and a video to prepare for all the necessary procedures in travelling by air. In addition, travellers with ASD receive an YVR Access Sticker on their boarding pass, which notifies airport employees of their special needs in going through screening and customs.

The move to make air travel from Vancouver more accustomed for people with neurodevelopmental disorder was guided by the Canucks Autism Network, which provides recreation programs for Canadians living with autism. The program has been a success and was welcomed by Vancouverites affiliated with the illness.

The park board is just the beginning

Shum hopes the park board motion will prompt change in other local municipalities.

“It got interest from all over,” said Shum.

One Vancouver city councillor,  Melissa De Genova, said she would like to see this program adopted city-wide.

The provincial government has also commended the board, calling the program innovative and expressing interest in promoting the board’s efforts.

There have been incremental changes regarding the treatment of people with ASD over the years.

Since 2010, the government provides direct aid, such as housing and support workers, for residents with mental disabilities, including ASD.

In 2013, the government launched an employment program to co-operate with municipalities in creating more jobs for people with autism.

However, despite this effort, the park board is the only municipal agency of Metro Vancouver so far to have taken action…

Nevertheless, Shum remains positive. “Other municipalities will start looking into this,” she said.

Later this spring, the park board will hold two- to four-hour training sessions for its employees.

Staff will also create jobs for individuals with ASD, especially for high-school students who need the experience to graduate.

The training sessions and special programs for community members with autism will have support of the Autism Society of B.C. and the Canucks Autism Network. The details of the program are still being worked out, but sessions are scheduled to be completed by later this year.