Space of their own: Autism pro­grams at Pen Cen­tre

The Welland Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - CH­ERYL CLOCK

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 dropin 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.”

JULIE JOCSAK/POSTMEDIA NEWS

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.

JULIE JOCSAK/POSTMEDI ANEWS

Al Dob­bin, founded Bridges for Autism with his wife, Sherry Dob­bin. He is pho­tographed at the Bridges for Autism lo­ca­tion at the Pen Cen­tre on Wed­nes­day,

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