If you don’t have a tour guide, it’s easy to miss what’s so relaxing about the space that’s set aside in the Museum of Surrey, which is located 30 kilometres east of Vancouver in Surrey, B.C.
The giant, red beanbag that Kayla Tellier loves sinking into, for example, is more than just a comfy place to sit.
“The noise of the beans inside can be a very comforting sound,” she said.
“It helps people relax.”
There’s also the blue, waist-high castle painted with yellow stars.
Sylvain Formo, 24, says sitting inside can have a calming effect on children.
“I would have liked that as a kid,” he said.
“It’s a place to relax and take a few minutes.”
Tellier and Formo are both experts in relaxation techniques because they’re both familiar with feeling overwhelmed, which is common for people with autism spectrum disorder.
That’s why the city is hiring both of them to help make Surrey more inclusive.
Tellier and Formo advise staff on how to create spaces where people with autism aren’t overwhelmed with stimuli.
Sensory friendly environments are now provided at civic events, such as the recent Canada Day celebration and the museum will soon offer sensory friendly hours once a month.
“It’s something I wish was there when I was little,” Tellier said.
“Other people will now have a better family outing because of it.”
Tellier, 23, suspected she was autistic long before she received her official diagnosis when she was 20.
She remembers have ‘meltdowns’ at the public pool as a girl because she couldn’t drown out the sound of shouting children.
“My brain doesn’t block out background noise like other people’s brains do,” Tellier said.
“When I’m in a crowded space, it tries to process all the conversations happening around me. It gets really confusing and then it gets really scary.”
Formo had similar scary experiences that led to tantrums when he was a child.
He loved playing hockey, but couldn’t handle the chattering of his teammates.
Things got better when he discovered the solitude of playing goalie.
“That gave me anxiety when I was a kid, being on a bench with a bunch of people,” he said.
“Being on my own was kind of nice.”
Finding a community
Coping with anxiety became easier for both Tellier and Formo when they connected with the Canucks Autism Network (CAN), which provides programs for people with autism.
Formo joined the CAN program and finally felt comfortable being part of a team.
“I didn’t have to try to hide any of the things that come along with autism,” he said.
“I used to flap my arms but I’d hide it. Now it wasn’t a shock to anyone.”
One in every 66 Canadian children is on the autism spectrum, according to a 2018 report from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
All Surrey firefighters are receiving autism awareness training and fire trucks will soon be equipped with sensory friendly kits.
Ben Wilson is a Surrey Fire Prevention Captain who works on autism awareness issues for the Surrey Fire Fighters’ Charitable Society.
He says each kit includes noise cancelling headphones and picture books that allow firefighters to communicate with people who are non-verbal.
“We try to stress reducing sensory stimulus in the environment of lights, sirens and noisy engines,” he said.
“By reducing those stimuli so you can reduce the level of anxiety.”
Wilson says he’s passing along what he’s learned from his daughter, who was diagnosed in 2013.
“She taught me everything,” he said.
“I want to advocate on her behalf.”