Sunday, 24 April 2011

Sensory Integration & Autism + CJs Skate Park, Toronto

As teachers in a field where a majority of clients possess a diagnosis of Autism, sensory considerations are always on the mind. The foundation of my work as a teacher comes from appreciating that every child is completely different in his or her sensory needs; many children are both over and under responsive to certain senses, requiring systematic planning for successful learning. Without appreciating these variables, individuals with Autism often report a kind of fragmentation of interpretation of sensory information, which results in the need to control or regulate, i.e. a self-stimulatory behaviour is born (flapping, spinning, humming, laughing, tapping, and so on); imagine listening to 25 people talking all at one time and being asked to interpret. Not ideal.

I started thinking about all of this, and doing some research on vestibular stimulation (i.e. stimulating the balance system) after visiting CJ's Skateboard Park in Toronto. On Saturday mornings, CJ's is open for an hour for students with special needs to have use of the impressive, industrial sized, skateboard park. Believe me, I know what you are thinking..sensory overload, right? Well I went to CJ's Skateboard Park, and saw with my own eyes that with some thoughtful planning, some carefully placed visuals and a supportive environment, even a child that is over-sensitive to sensory and environmental variables can walk in frazzled, and walk out cool, calm and collected.

The youngest skateboarder was 5 or 6, and the oldest were teens; beginner and advanced skate boarders are coached by peer mentors, between the ages of 13-15 and are supervised and supported by CJ's Skateboard Park owner Jay and his incredibly kind and dedicated staff. FYII love that is an age-appropriate activity for many kids who do not possess the coordination or social skills to participate in team sports.

CJ's Skateboard Park owner Jay is a passionate skateboarder, and has a phenomenal way of connecting with each child (verbal and nonverbal). Jay has a way of eliciting language, developing a rapport, and increasing confidence in even the youngest skateboarders. After a brief chat with Jay, it was very obvious that he noticed some link between the motion that the skateboard provided, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Of course, Jay is absolutely right. Many children with Autism are sensory-seekers (under responsive to sensory information), and the motion provided by rolling back and forth on a 6 foot ramp is exactly what they need to regulate and sooth the senses; not to mention the 8 foot ramps, or drop-in foam pits. I imagine even after reading this, you are hesitant.

Let me go on by clarifying that every rider, and instructor, must wear a helmet in the skate park (ramps are made of wood paneling not concrete); further, each boarder wears knee pads, elbow pads, wrist pads, and any other pads their parents wish to strap on, the more the merrier. Each skateboarder is accompanied by a combination of 1-5 peer mentors, and 3-5 adult supervisors who circulate providing support and hand-over-hand assistance as needed. Service dogs are welcome in the parent-waiting area, and there is a huge space with couches, a big-screen t.v. and dinning room table for birthday parties (not to mention the play-station gaming area).

I absolutely love the idea of a skateboard as a functional way of providing the movement needed to develop balance, posture, reflexes, coordination, confidence and social skills! More on this place soon, because it's a gem!