Canucks' mascot Fin with a friend. Hockey is just one way that Canucks Autism Network is helping empower kids, youth, and adults on the spectrum.
By Spencer van Vloten
Although Canucks Autism Network (CAN) bears the name of the popular Vancouver hockey team, CAN's work goes far beyond the rink. With a wide and growing array of programs, CAN is helping create communities in which more persons on the autism spectrum are included and equipped with the skills and confidence to thrive.
Spencer van Vloten talked with CAN's Harold Cecchetti about how the organization is evolving, and why the need to support persons on the spectrum is greater than ever.
Spencer: How did CAN get started?
Harold: We were founded in 2008 by Vancouver Canucks Co-owner Paolo Aquilini and his wife Clara. Together, they have a son on the autism spectrum, Christian.
Growing up, Christian loved all things sports, but Paolo and Clara quickly realized there were very limited programs that cater to the unique needs of autistic individuals.
With the goal of offering programs that positively impact individuals on the spectrum and their families, CAN started with one soccer program. It was held in the summer at Rogers Arena (then GM Place) to a small handful of families in Vancouver.
Fast forward 13 years later and we have a membership base of 5,000+ individuals on the spectrum. We fill over 7,000 program spaces per year and have extended our impact beyond programming by offering autism training and employment services as well.
Founders Paolo and Clara Aquilini, with son Christian
Spencer: What programs does CAN offer?
Harold: Canucks Autism Network offers a range of in-person and virtual programs for individuals on the spectrum of all ages.
For our “Early Years” participants aged 3-6, we provide weekly programs that seek to develop basic physical literacy skills, like jumping, running and balancing. For our older kids ages 7-12, we continue to focus on weekly sports and rec programs with an increased emphasis on social opportunities.
For both of these age groups, the goal is to provide a positive first experience in sports and rec – developing the skills and confidence necessary to transition to community-based programs outside of CAN.
As our participants enter their teenage and adult years (13+), sports and rec opportunities remain, but we shift our focus to opportunities that support successful transitions to adulthood and independent living. These include programs that focus on arts and technology, social and life skills, physical and mental health and volunteering and employment.
Going into a bit more detail on employment, this is a branch of our services that is rapidly expanding at CAN. In the past year, we’ve been fortunate to secure government funding to launch a number of important initiatives.
Already, we’ve connected with dozens of employers to support their inclusive hiring efforts, while consulting 1 on 1 with job seekers on the spectrum as well. This year, we are ready to launch a Virtual Job Fair for over 80 autistic youth and adults, as well as two separate work experience programs.
CAN's programs include recreation, community training and engagement, employment, and much more
Spencer: CAN places a heavy emphasis on sports. Why do you consider sports and physical activity so important to the development of autistic persons?
Harold: We believe that every child on the autism spectrum has the right to play sports. The benefits of community rec extend far beyond physical health.
Participation in group settings helps develop critical interpersonal and social skills. The sense of belonging that children and youth get from being on a team is absolutely invaluable. It gives kids a common interest with their peers that can break the ice and launch lifelong friendships.
Learning new skills through sports and rec also gives kids invaluable confidence. Being able to say that you have mastered – or simply enjoy – something that was once difficult is an amazing thing. That sense of accomplishment does wonders for a kid’s self-confidence that they’ll take with them at school, in their community and throughout their entire lifetime.
And it’s no secret that physical activity also benefits your mental health. With the ongoing uncertainty of COVID, it’s so important that we all have opportunities to relieve stress and anxiety through being active. Our programs give that opportunity to our participants in spades!
A CAN adapted hockey tournament creates memories for players and parents alike
Spencer: CAN does work to change attitudes about autism, both in schools and the broader community. What are the keys to improving people’s attitudes about autism?
Harold: Absolutely, yes! Our training and community engagement team is dedicated to fostering inclusion, accessibility and support across community sectors.
Despite COVID-19, we were still able to deliver 49 live autism workshops to over 1,100 community professionals across BC in 2020. During the pandemic, we shifted our in-person workshops to virtual sessions over Zoom.
Groups we’ve trained in 2020 include national sports and rec organizations like Canadian Tire Jumpstart and Jays Care, school districts across BC, first responders, health practitioners, parents and guardians and large community organizations like YVR, Science World and TransLink.
Every population deserves equal opportunity to participate in their community. If you are committed to building an accessible community, that includes individuals on the spectrum.
Our vision is for every individual on the autism spectrum to be understood, accepted and supported in all community spaces.
"Every population deserves equal opportunity to participate in their community"
But we cannot do it alone. In order to achieve that vision, we believe that every community must take action. It has been an absolute inspiration to see the countless groups that have welcomed this idea with open arms!
Spencer: How do you rate the levels of support that autistic persons in BC receive, and, in particular, autistic adults? Has the situation for autistic persons in BC changed in recent years?
Harold: We are intimately aware of both the challenges and successes that our participants experience on a daily basis. With 1 in 40 kids now diagnosed in BC, the need for support is greater than ever.
It’s an absolute privilege to be involved in the lives of our members and families. We’re extremely proud of the work that we’ve done to directly support over 5,000 individuals on the spectrum across BC during our 13 year history.
But we recognize that there is so much more to be done. And we want to do more. That’s why we also need the support of the public in helping us do what we do.
Spencer: How has the pandemic impacted CAN? In what unique ways has it impacted the lives of autistic persons and their families?
Harold: The pandemic has changed the lives of every individual in BC and beyond. But from the conversations that we’ve had with our members, we know first-hand that individuals on the spectrum and their families can often be disproportionately affected.
Our participants often thrive on routine – and the uncertainty around COVID can be an overwhelming experience. Our programs give our members a critical sense of normalcy and regular engagement with a community of support.
"Our programs give our members a critical sense of normalcy and regular engagement with a community of support"
When COVID hit, that sense of routine and community was put in severe jeopardy. Thankfully, we were able to quickly pivot this past spring – within a month of suspending in-person programs, we started delivering online programming so that we could continue reaching our participants at home.
Today, we have 16 weekly virtual programs that offer sports and rec, arts, science and social opportunities to all ages!
Because of the new online format, we’ve actually been able to reach families in remote areas of BC who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access our programs. And thanks to new government funding, we’re able to offer a free iPad loan program (complete with a monthly data plan) to families in Northern BC to access our virtual programs as well!
At the same time, we have also been able to slowly reintroduce in-person programming with strict safety protocols in place that either meet or exceed provincial health recommendations.
CAN is reaching new families across BC through its virtual programs, and is also providing support with a free iPad loan program
Spencer: CAN obviously bears the name of the Vancouver Canucks—what support do you get from the team?
Harold: The Vancouver Canucks and Canucks For Kids Fund have been absolutely vital in their support throughout our entire 13-year history.
Beyond annual funding, the Canucks have been a leader in championing autism accessibility. In April 2018, Rogers Arena became the first Canadian NHL stadium to feature comprehensive autism accessibility.
Resources include an Activity Storybook and game timeline to help illustrate what to expect at a game, a sensory toy, Quiet Room available upon request, noise-cancelling headphones and over 100 arena staff who have received CAN autism training.
These are available free of charge and at any Rogers Arena game, concert or event. Due to COVID -19, these events are obviously no longer open to the public. But we look forward to countless individuals on the spectrum continuing to access these resources when large gatherings are once again possible!
And of course, it’s always a treat for our families to see Canucks players at our key events! Over the years, players like the Sedins and current head coach Travis Green have been regular attendees at CAN Sports Day, Reveal Gala and our CAN Pro-Am Hockey Tournament!
CAN kids (and Fin!) get tips from former Canucks' goalie Jacob Markstrom
Spencer: If people want to get involved with CAN or make a contribution or donation, how can they do this?
Make a donation! Visit canucksautism.ca/donate.
Every little bit counts. And by contributing, you are joining us in our vision – for every individual on the autism spectrum to be understood, accepted and supported in all community spaces.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!