The City of Surrey has one of the highest rates of autism in British Columbia. As a result, the City has partnered with the Canucks Autism Network (CAN) to expand their accessibility, and create and promote several sensory friendly options for people living with Autism or who have sensory processing needs.

For people who live with Autism or who have sensory processing needs, the brain struggles to organize and respond to information from the 5 senses, sounds, sight, smell, texture and taste. This can result in the person feeling “sensory overload.” There are two different types of sensory processing needs, one is sensory seeking and the other is sensory avoiding. Most commonly is the sensory avoiding, which is why we have created Sensory Friendly Spaces at all major events in the City.

The City has introduced sensory friendly spaces at our signature events which has been a resounding success thus far. Julia Langley, a local resident, and her family attended Surrey’s Canada Day Celebrations last year. For her 9-year-old son who has Autism, events like these can be very overwhelming. “My son was not coping at all. I thought there had to be a sensory friendly zone somewhere,” Julia shared with us after the event. “Sure enough, I see the CAN tent. And inside is a table of noise-cancelling headphones amongst all sorts of fidgets and sensory gear. My son was desperate to go because he knows that CAN is somewhere he can go and feel better. We are so grateful they were there so that we could all enjoy the Our Lady Peace concert!” Another family let staff know that they’re eight-year-old son could successfully stay and watch his first-ever fireworks show thanks to borrowing the headphones.

At Surrey’s Tree Lighting Festival, two children were able to wait in line and meet Santa for the first time because of the noise canceling headphones. Karin Pasqua, the City’s Accessibility and Universal Design Specialist was at the event spearheading the sensory friendly space. “We heard from numerous families that they could stay and enjoy the event far longer than they would have otherwise,” Karin explained. “I met one family who was able to visibly relax as they sat on the couches and watched their son giggle away playing with the sensory toys we had available. They told us that events like these they would otherwise avoid or only be able to stay for 20 minutes before they needed leave.”

Two of the public facilities now offering sensory friendly options are the Surrey Museum and Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre. At Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, there is a permanent sensory friendly space for people to use when they need a break from countless external stimuli. This sensory friendly space offers a reduced sensory environment which includes a variety of quiet activities for people of all ages, such as books, sensory toys like as stress balls and fidget toys, bean bag chairs to provide a comfortable seating option and items such as tunnels that allow a child to hide or create their own space away from others.  Noise cancelling headphones are also available at the front desk for those who feel overwhelmed by a noisy environment.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the space at all our facilities to include a permanent sensory friendly area. So instead, at The Surrey Museum, we offer sensory friendly times on the first Sunday of every month from 10am-12pm. During this time, there is reduced noise, lower lighting, bean bag chairs, and a temporary sensory friendly space. Noise cancelling headphones are also made available at reception.

Recently, a parent of child with Autism filled out a comment card at the Museum and noted that their family had taken part in one of the scheduled sensory friendly times. It was their first trip to the Museum, and they were very grateful for the time they were able to spend there, in large part because of the sensory friendly space and noise-cancelling headphones.

In an effort to make Surrey more inclusive, the City has hired staff who have Autism. Sylvain Formo, a young person with Autism, was hired to advise staff on how to create spaces where people with Autism aren’t overwhelmed with stimuli. Sylvain also supports the accessibility team with a variety of work and is now leading the volunteer teams who run the sensory friendly spaces at events.

(L-R) Ben Wilson, Prevention Captain of Surrey Fire Service, Sparky the Fire Dog, Councillor Linda Annis and Councillor Allison Patton

Last August, the City introduced Sensory Kits at the Surrey Museum, which are available for families to borrow outside of the scheduled sensory friendly times. The kits contain stress balls, fidget toys, communication picture symbols, and a ‘visual story’ which helps walk a patron through the experience of visiting the Museum. They have been incredibly successful. The Surrey Fire Department also has specialized sensory kits to better support people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder or who have sensory processing needs.  The next step will be to distribute the sensory kits to the recreation centres and aquatics facilities across the City.

The sensory kits, which are stored in a drawstring backpack, include noise cancelling headphones, sensory toys, picture symbols, and social stories that narrate what may happen during the individual’s emergency.  They also include a communication board so that someone can point to a body part or an image of a feeling to help communicate with the first responders.

We’re excited to launch more of these kits, knowing they will support a variety of people, not just those who have Autism. The picture symbols can also be used with anyone who needs support with communication, such as an English Second Language learner, someone who is feeling overwhelmed, is hard of hearing, or who is struggling to convey their message.

We are also currently working to create new procedures for the use and loan of our sensory friendly kits that are COVID-19 friendly. We are working diligently to ensure that we are able to share these resources with the public, safely, in the near future.

Note: The City of Surrey was awarded BCRPA’s 2020 Program Excellence Award (for communities over 15,000) for their Sensory Friendly Spaces project.

About the authors:

Tara Roberts, Manager of Support Services and Accessibility, is a leader in Accessibility & Inclusion and a champion in ensuring that the City of Surrey is providing Universal Access to all Civic Facilities and Properties, Sports Tourism, Emergency Management and Support Services in the Parks, Recreation & Culture Department, City of Surrey. She has a undeniable and infectious passion for ensuring that every member of our community is included all aspects of community life, regardless of their ability or disability. Thanks to Tara’s leadership, the City of Surrey has become known for its exceptional accessibility and she has her sights set on ensuring that the City of Surrey is BC’s most accessible city.

Karin Pasqua, Accessibility & Universal Design Specialist, has a passion for beautiful and functional design. She has a deep understanding that spaces and events in our communities should be enjoyed by everyone, of all abilities. Her unique professional background, long-affiliated with the disability community combines recreation, fund development and special events. She likes to say that she is part engineer and part occupational therapist since she has a natural affinity for adapting an environment and turning what some see as complex access problems into thoughtful, barrier-free solutions.

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