From left to right: Katy Harandi (president of the Canucks Autism Network), Surrey First mayoral candidate Tom Gill and Dawn McKenna (executive director Pacific Autism Family Network) at a press conference announcing that if elected, Surrey First would expand city efforts to make kids with autism “feel at home.” (Submitted photo)

Surrey First vows to expand city efforts to make kids with autism ‘feel at home’

Initiative would include staff and coach training, as well as a sensory room in Clayton Community Centre

Surrey First is promising to expand city efforts to make children with autism “feel at home” in Surrey’s parks, pools, rinks and community centres, if elected.

“I want Surrey to lead the country in inclusivity, particularly for our children,” said the slate’s mayoral candidate Tom Gill in a release.

This past summer, the City of Surrey launched “Sensory Friendly Spaces,” at public events and has provided training to 100 of its recreational centre staff, a Surrey First release notes.

“Here in Surrey we’ve made a terrific start, but I want to take it further faster,” Gill added. “Our Surrey First team wants to see another 500 of our parks, rec and library staff trained by June of next year, offer training to the more than 3,500 soccer, baseball, hockey and football coaches in our city, and pilot a Snoezelen sensory room in our new Clayton Community Centre which is under construction and set to open in summer 2020.”

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According to a Surrey First release, the Snoezelen sensory rooms — developed in Holland nearly 40 years ago — use sound, light, colour and texture to provide a multi-sensory experience for children with autism.

Gill said he wants the pilot room to be a template for other Snoezelen rooms and wants to work with organizations such as the Canucks Autism Network and Pacific Autism Family Network to become a “champion for inclusion.”

“Our parks, pools, rinks and community centres are second to none and that goes for our staff as well,” said Gill. “Training and awareness are key to making children feel included, so I want to make sure our city staff are trained, and I want to offer that same training and information to our city’s incredible volunteer coaches right across Surrey.”

Surrey First council candidate Trevor Halford said “building confidence and life skills” in children starts with feeling accepted and included.

“Feeling understood and accepted is important for these kids, but it’s equally important for their parents,” said Halford, a local soccer coach whose family has a personal connection to ASD. “Putting our pools, rinks, playing fields and community centres to work on behalf of these 1,600 Surrey children and their families is an important part of helping them feel included, and that starts by training as many of our city staff as possible about autism, removing the stigma, and making sure every child feels welcome. Including our city’s coaches is a terrific addition that will also help raise awareness right across our community.”

Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia, who founded the Pacific Autism Family Network with her husband Sergio Cocchia, said Gill’s commitment to making the city more inclusive says a lot about Surrey.

“For a city to step up and say they want to make sure every child is included is wonderful, and something Surrey should be proud of,” said Lisogar-Cocchia in a release. “Today, one in 66 children aged five to 17 is diagnosed with autism, and it is four times more common in boys than girls. It’s something that touches not just the 1,600 children in Surrey, but also their families and extended families.”

Katy Harandi, president of the Canucks Autism Network, said training city staff and local coaches will go a long way.

“We are proud of our partnership with the City of Surrey and look forward to building on our existing relationship by providing additional autism training to the sports and recreation sector and beyond,” said Harandi. “Our ultimate goal is for every individual with autism to be understood, accepted and supported in all community spaces and this training in Surrey will mark an important step in this direction.”

Carmen Zajac, president of the Zajac Ranch for Children, said “giving staff at the City of Surrey the training and coaching they need to make sure city facilities are as inclusive as possible is a wonderful idea and something every parent wants for their child.”

Click here to read more election news.

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