Ontario Science Centre launches new program geared to children with autism

The Ontario Science Centre hosted its first "Sensory-friendly Saturday" this weekend, a day filled with programming tailored to those living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Sensory-friendly Saturday will be held weekly until April 21

Rachel Ward-Maxwell speaks about Sensory-friendly Saturday. The event will run weekly until April 21. (Carly Thomas/CBC)

The Ontario Science Centre hosted its first "Sensory-friendly Saturday" this weekend, a day filled with programming tailored to those living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

The event, intended to "embrace and celebrate neurodiversity," was launched in the run up to World Autism Awareness Day and also comes on the heels of a groundbreaking new report on ASD.

"Sensory-friendly Saturdays were developed to provide an environment that is inclusive, accessible and respectful," the Ontario Science Centre said in a statement.

It adds that the event was created with "a variety of communities in mind," and that it's intended to be engaging for people of all ages. 

There's a planetarium open house, as well as programming geared toward children who may prefer a more intimate learning environment. There's also a day-long showcase exhibiting new and emerging accessibility technology, including virtual-reality tech and "digital assistive" programs. 

Research conducted for ongoing study

For aspiring scientists, there's also the chance to provide data for a unique study that is being conducted in part in the Science Centre itself.

"This study will be the first of its kind to characterize the variability of emotional responses in a general population, which will ultimately lead to the development of machine learning methods to detect the onset of emotional states in individuals who may not be able to communicate their experiences, including those with autism," the Ontario Science Centre said online about the study.

The Science Centre says participants between the ages of 10 and 18 are shown images deliberately chosen to elicit a range of emotional responses.
Researchers hope to develop tools that will assist those who have ASD. (Carly Thomas/CBC)

"Our Research Live program invites researchers to come in to conduct studies with visitors on our floor where the visitors get to contribute to the advancement of science by providing their data and partnering with the researchers in the data collection," Rachel Ward-Maxwell, a researcher and programmer in astronomy and space sciences at the Ontario Science Centre, told CBC Toronto.

"So what our researchers are studying here over the next few weeks is they want to develop tools that will assist those who have ASD. Those tools include wearable sensors and anxiety metres as well as a virtual reality experience for children with autism."

Wearable sensors measure the heart rate, skin temperature and skin conductance of each person as the images scroll. 

"We know that kids with autism, some of them have difficulty expressing themselves, so we're trying to look at different ways the body can give us signals so we can quantify how they are feeling," Hisham Mohammad, a research assistant and engineering student at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, told CBC Toronto.
Hisham Mohammad, one of the Sensory-friendly Saturday researchers. (Carly Thomas/CBC)

"We're collecting data from the body — we're taking heartbeat, temperature sensors, skin conductors, respiration and hopefully we're trying to get a correlation between how a person says they're feeling ... versus what the body is actually trying to show. We're comparing these data from typically developing children ... versus children with autism."

ASD is typically detected in early childhood and causes impairments in communication skills and social interactions. Those symptoms are often combined with repetitive behaviours and restricted interests or activities.

New study released on ASD

On Thursday, Public Health Agency of Canada publicly released a first-of-its-kind report on the prevalence of Canadian children who have ASD. Its release was timed with the 11th annual World Autism Awareness Day on Monday. 

The most notable finding — that an estimated one in 66 Canadian children between the ages of five and 17 are living on the spectrum — was based on data from six provinces and the Yukon.

Robert Strang, chief medical officer of Nova Scotia and chair of the national ASD advisory committee, said that finally having an idea of the prevalence of the disorder in Canada "really helps to start to inform what we need to have in place across the country in terms of supports, programs and clinical interventions.

"There's a lot of discussion about making our communities more accessible for people with disabilities, but far too often we forget about the sensory environment and accessibility is not just about physical accessibility," he told CBC News. 

Public Health Agency of Canada publicly this week released a first-of-its-kind report on the prevalence of Canadian children who have ASD. (Public Health Agency of Canada)

Canada does not have a national autism strategy, though this year's federal budget earmarked $20 million over five years toward ASD. That funding would go toward developing a network to connect those with ASD and their loved ones to necessary resources and opportunities. 

Strang said while Canada is making progress on this front, "there is still a long way to go.

"We need to be working together, federal and provincial levels of government with NGOs, communities organizations and researchers. There's lots of good things happening but ... there's many gaps," he continued.

"We need to enhance greatly the amount of collaboration between all those different sectors, so ultimately all the families across the country will have equal access to the necessary programs and supports."

With files from The Canadian Press