When he exits the Octopus ride at the West Vancouver Police Carnival, Christopher McCaffery literally jumps for joy.
“I’m having fun,” he declares. “This is awesome.”
Under normal circumstances, carnivals would be a no-go for the 11-year-old with autism. But Christopher and his grandparents made the trip in from Maple Ridge because, for the first time, the West Vancouver police and the Pacific Autism Family Network made the annual event into a “sensory friendly” carnival for people on the autism spectrum.
For two hours prior to the usual opening time on Friday, the organizers turned off the obligatory blaring music and flashing lights, which can make carnivals overwhelming for people with acute sensitivity to sensory overload.
“It would be like being at a rock concert your whole life, but times 10 so it can be really, really difficult to be out and about,” said Kathryn Choquer, senior vice-president for the foundation. “This carnival is important because without sound and without lighting, this will be a lot easier for some people to handle.”
The network also limited the number of tickets available to the sensory friendly carnival because crowds and line-ups can also be big challenges for people on the spectrum. For the McCaffreys, it worked like a charm.
“He’s ecstatic. He can’t stand in any kind of a line so, to take him to the PNE, you just can’t really do that. … To him, this is almost like Disneyland. It’s huge,” Christopher’s grandmother Marlene McCaffery said with a laugh. “This will be the highlight of his week.”
The network offers families other sensory friendly experiences like visits with Santa and Vancouver Whitecaps and B.C. Lions games where attendees on the spectrrum are given earmuffs, sunglasses, and a squishy toy to hold onto when the crowd roars.
“What happens is we find families who have never done that before because there was no way for them to get out there and enjoy it. They knew their child on the spectrum would be too overwhelmed to be able to handle the crowd,” Choquer said. “It’s an important thing, psychologically, to be welcomed into the community and this is the whole point. We’re all about authentic inclusion – how can people on the spectrum participate in community events in a way that is meaningful?”
There is a need for more sensory friendly events in the Lower Mainland, said Karen Berkhout, whose 15-year-old son Simon particularly enjoyed the bumper cars. That goes especially so for neurodiverse families.
“This is perfect because Simon would not be able to manage lineups or excessive noise and he gets a chance to ride on the rides so he loves it,” she said. “Inevitably what happens is siblings in the same family often miss out, or we have to do things separately so this kind of set up is fantastic because we can all come as a family.”
Choquer said tickets for the two-hour event vanished within hours, indicating a great demand for more, similar events in the Lower Mainland.
“It wasn’t even a day. The tickets were gone,” she said. “We almost cried.”
The Pacific Family Autism Network was founded by West Vancouver resident Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia. Lisogar-Cocchia, who sat on the West Vancouver police board for five years, was also responsible for introducing autism training for the West Vancouver police.