An Ottawa couple is launching a new initiative to offer sports programming and support for children and teens living with autism.

Liisa Vexler and Derek Firth are raising money for the project called "Ausome Ottawa", with plans to start a basketball program in the new year before expanding it to other sports like gymnastics, hockey, and swimming.

"We have two sons, and our oldest son was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder when he was seven," said Vexler.

'It brings out a ton of self esteem — just the physical benefits from being a healthy kid.' - Derek Firth

Now ten, Vexler said "he is a huge athlete, loves everything about sports, talks about sports, watches sports, plays sports, all day long."

Firth now coaches their oldest son on a competitive basketball team, and has seen him grow and develop as an athlete and as a person.

"There's so many benefits," said Firth. "It brings out a ton of self esteem — just the physical benefits from being a healthy kid. And it also plays a huge role in reducing anxiety for him and a lot of other kids."

"He's really able just to flourish just in all aspects of his life because of his participation in a sport, in his favourite activity," added Vexler, pointing to the friendships he's made and the leadership skills he's acquired.

Launch party to raise money

With that inspiration, the wife and husband want to offer similar opportunities to other kids in Ottawa, so they're holding a launch party at their home in Westboro on Nov. 28 to raise some of the core funding.

"Right now a lot of families with children with autism struggle to participate in a lot of sports programs that are out there, for various reasons including financial barriers, additional support required," said Firth.

Derek Firth (left), coaches his son's basketball team

Derek Firth (left), coaches his son's basketball team.

Their plan is to make Ausome Ottawa free of charge to families, with one-on-one supports for participants, and workshops and activities for family members, on top of the sports programs.

"It's another way for people to create a community, and for people to be able to talk about it. So beyond sports and sports programming, it's creating a community," said Vexler.

With the goal to launch basketball and gymnastics in 2016, they already have committed venues in place as partners: basketball training facility Capital Courts and the Nepean Corona School of Gymnastics.

While awareness of autism is on the rise, Vexler and Firth believe there's still a long way to go, and they hope Ausome Ottawa helps educate the community.

"Right now, there appears to be a good amount of money put into research on the scientific end, but not a lot of money being put into programs for kids and families that struggle day to day," said Firth.

"And to say that these families are in crisis is often an understatement."