Space of their own: Autism programs at Pen Centre
They have the passion. And the experience as parents of a child with autism.
They have the prime location in the Pen Centre.
They have the 11,000 square feet of activity space. Three gyms. An arts and crafts room. Two sensory rooms. And a quiet activity space.
They have programs geared for children, teens and adults with autism: Karate, gymnastics, fitness, arts, after school homework help, yoga, and social skills.
They just need people.
They need people to come and be a part of their vision to create programs and a space that can bridge the gaps in services in the community.
Niagara Falls couple Al and Sherry Dobbin have created a space in the Pen Centre where people with autism and other special needs can come and experience meaningful recreational programs.
They opened the Bridges for Autism mall space in May, and spent the weeks through the summer offering programs and dropin time to gauge the needs of the community. Come October, they will start up again. This time with memberships that allow people to register for programs and activities, and drop-in respite times for shoppers who can drop off a person with autism or any special needs and have some uninterrupted mall time. (Children without special needs can also be part
of the drop off program, too.)
The space is at the back of the Pen Centre, right beside Winners and Dollarama. It’s close to the entrance, so that if a person with autism has sensory issues – sensitivity to lights, sounds and smells – they don’t have to trek through the entire mall to find the centre.
Indeed, the entire space is autism friendly.
They should know. Their passion is fuelled by a special six-year-old in their lives – their son, Daniel.
Anyone who has a person with autism in their lives, understands waiting. Parents wait to have a child diagnosed. They wait for treatment. They wait to see specialists. And when one therapy ends, they wait for another to begin.
They wait for time alone. They wait for time with each other.
Al and Sherry got tired of waiting.
“We want to put things in place for our own son,” says Al.
“And if we can bring some other people along on the journey, if we can help them too, then why not?”
The benefit to the Pen Centre is to bring in families who otherwise wouldn’t go to a mall to shop. Sensory overload can lead to meltdowns and other unwanted behaviours, and many families simply choose not to bring someone with autism into that environment. And if they don’t have anyone to look after that person, they don’t get out either, says Sherry.
By offering a safe, autism-friendly space, she hopes families will use the centre, and use the mall.
Inside the centre, renovated after its life as a fitness facility, there are two sensory rooms where people can go if they’re on overload. There’s a variety of lighting — LED lights on a string, full lights, dimmed lights and stars and other shapes that glow on the walls. The room has a fuzzy blanket, a large stuffed moose sitting in one corner, books and comfy pillows.
It’s a place where people can find quiet time, learn how to regulate their senses, and more easily transition to other activities, says Sherry.
There are three distinct gym spaces. One that features rowing equipment and purple hammocklike cocoons that hang from the ceiling.
“Kids love to rock in them,” says Sherry.
There’s a gym space with large crash pads, other cushioned shapes to encourage physical skills and a large wall projection of swimming fish and other calming images. Further down, another space is covered with a large floor mat for activities like yoga and karate. Everything is interchangeable and moveable, says Al.
Equipment and supplies have been borrowed from Brock University, donated by both Niagara school boards, and bought through fundraising, they say.
There will be two distinct service areas:
Drop-in respite. Parents and caregivers of children, teens or adults with autism or other disabilities can register and drop off their loved one for one hour so they have time to shop in the mall, or go for a coffee. In addition, parents of all young children can use the drop in time too. There is a fee. Available days and times will be decided soon.
Recreational programs. The programs are geared to people with autism or other special needs. Participants must register. Instructors are certified, trained and have experience with people who have autism and other disabilities. There are fees, but people can buy a monthly membership for $60 which allows them a discount off the price of programs, some free activities and an open gym time where parents or respite workers can bring a person with autism.
Membership and program fees can be paid for with Special Services at Home or Passport program funding.
The couple wants this space to be a community endeavour. They need ideas. They need donations of equipment and supplies. And they need volunteers to make it happen.
This summer, they had volunteers from related programs at Niagara College and Brock University.
They also need people to come in and try it out.
“Let’s make it happen,” says Al. “Let’s grow it.”
Al Dobbin, founded Bridges for Autism with his wife, Sherry Dobbin. This is one of several rooms at the Pen Centre set up for programs and activities.
The entire space is autism friendly.