New inclusive park for the community of Coniston
Sensory equipment promoting 'all sorts of different abilities' local autism advocate says
The community of Coniston will soon be home to a new inclusive playground, designed to accommodate people of all ages and abilities.
Sara Kitlar-Pothier, an executive member of the Coniston Playground Association, said something as simple as visiting a playground isn't always easy for families like hers.
Kitlar-Pothier's, who is also an advocate with the Autism Alliance of Northern Ontario, said her son is on the autism spectrum.
"For many families, it's very difficult to go to a park," she said. "It brings up a lot of feelings of anxiety and stress and worry for a lot of different reasons."
"Parks are incredible places where kids can interact and learn and socialize," she said. "But for a lot of autistic families, that's not a reality."
Kitlar-Pothier said autistic kids can sometimes elope, or run away from their caregivers.
"It's not like in a neurotypical situation where your child runs away from you," she said. "It could be a game. They listen to you, they come back. That's not how it works."
"Sometimes kids [with autism] will just run. They're not concerned about their safety or their surroundings so they could run into the road. And it's a really scary thing."
Kids on the spectrum can also climb things or take leaps, putting themselves and others in danger, she said.
It was concerns like this that motivated Kitlar-Pothier– who started an autism-friendly sports night two years ago– to start talking about the idea of a community park. She brought up the idea at a Community Action Network meeting, and the city got wind of it, then reached out to her when they found a vendor who could provide the kids with sensory equipment.
With some private donors, and funding from the municipal Healthy Community Initiative fund, the group has raised enough money to complete the park's first phase.
"That includes a fully fenced area around the park with one entrance, and that one entrance makes it a lot easier for families and parents because you only have one point of access to worry about," she said. "Phase one also includes sensory equipment, which will be in bright primary colours to different types of things that are much more accessible."
"I'm also working with the city to encourage having the appropriate curb breaks and accessible parking, as well as diverse signage, things such as PECS, which is a way that non-verbal people communicate. It's with pictures, particularly autistic children, Braille signs and sign language."
The park will also aim to be age-inclusive.
"There's a large aging population here, so having it fenced in means a grandparent can potentially take their grandchild to the park where they don't have to worry about them as much because you're in a fenced-in area," she said.
"There's also the swings that are going to be incorporated. There's one large one that can fit an adult. So regardless of your physical needs, you'll be able to go into this swing."
"There will also be a lot of sensory equipment that many different people can go on. Some of it will be a little bit lower. You don't have to climb as much."
"So it's really promoting all sorts of different abilities."
As far as other communities getting on board with outfitting parks with sensory equipment, Kitlar-Pothier said she hopes Coniston's park will act as a trial exercise.
"It's a place where different families and people of varying ages and abilities can all come together and feel safe in an environment to learn together, to socialize and just feel supported in a way that they can thrive," she said.
"That's what inclusion is really about, is to set up a playing field where all of the members involved have what they need to be their best selves."
With files from Sam Juric