"When most people travel, it's all about seeing something new, being challenged, either physically or even emotionally and psychologically. It's all about discovering something that they don’t know, being destabilized in some way," says Francois Duclos, manager, Visitor Experience Infrastructures, Visitor Experience Branch for Parks Canada.
But for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), going to unfamiliar environments can be disorienting and distressing, so their families are more likely to opt out of new experiences such as travelling and camping. Fortunately, every year new ASD-friendly spaces are opening up, with features that welcome and support visitors living on the spectrum. One of the most recent is found at Gros Morne National Park.
Last summer Parks Canada retrofitted six of their cabins at the Berry Hill Campground to be autism-friendly. These cabins are available to rent from June 1 to September 17.
There are several special features that make these cabins autism inclusive. Security and safety are especially important for parents of children with ASD, who may run off or throw things when they get frustrated or upset. So the locks in these cabins are placed higher on doors, out of reach of children, and the furniture is fastened to the floor.
“But the most important features have to do with the ambiance of the cabins. So for instance, lowering the light level is known to have a positive and soothing effect. But also including accessories…on which people can focus attention, on which people can actually focus so they’re no longer challenged by the differences that are surrounding them.”
Of course, the cabin is only one part of the camping experience. Before these guests even arrive they’re given a brochure to welcome them and ensure they know all they need to about the lodgings and the grounds before they arrive.
“Sometimes it’s in the details that for some people can indeed be challenging,” Francois says.
Spaces for All Canadians
How Parks Canada began this project is an interesting story. With 2017 marking Canada’s 150th birthday, Parks Canada management was looking to make some bold moves. “It was said it’s not enough to be accessible but it’s also important to be inclusive, which obviously is much broader than being accessible,” Francois says.
Around the same time, the need for more ASD-supportive spaces came to the forefront. First, staff was learning about how Hotel Port aux Basques opened its inclusive room in the spring of 2017, becoming the first autism-friendly hotel in Canada. Then, Gros Morne staff got a call from The Sons of Ned, an Ontario band, asking about performing in the park. Oh, and two of the band members have autism.
“So the Park decided to embark on this adventure and started to familiarize themselves with the challenges that…people on the autism spectrum go through on a daily basis,” says Francois. Parks Canada then teamed up with the Autism Society of NL (ASNL) and Autism Involves Me to create the new inclusive experience for travellers on the spectrum.
The park has gotten glowing feedback since opening the doors to its autism-friendly cabins. “If we allowed only a handful of families last year to experience something positive when they normally would have decided to stay home, this is already an awesome result,” Francois says.
Tess Hemeon, ASNL manager of Community Engagement, says, “What’s really important about that is that you’re allowing families to…experience something that they otherwise might not experience.”
People with ASD tend to prefer the comfort of set routines, making new experiences daunting. “So to try something new like camping or going to a park or going on a hike can be really intimidating. So the fact that Parks [Canada] was really open to trying some new things and welcoming families was so exciting to see,” she says.
As well, becoming autism-friendly doesn’t have to be an arduous task. It can mean simple considerations. Parks Canada is now looking at how to inspire other locations to become more inclusive. “And this is the beauty of such a project, is that it was born from the ground, it’s not top down,” Francois says. “It’s really bottom up, and this is really important for an organization like us because other places can easily be inspired.”
For instance, Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik National Park recently hosted a learn-to camp event for kids with ASD. Such initiatives aim to make camping less intimidating for them. Francois says each park has to look and see what they can do. For example, not all parks have cabins. “There is no one recipe that will fit everywhere, but what matters the most is the thought behind the recipe. It’s really this idea of stepping back, thinking about people, thinking about our places and thinking of how we can make them more welcoming, more inclusive,” says Francois.
“There is no longer such a thing like the average Canadian. And then you look at Parks Canada, the places we’re responsible for, those places belong to those Canadians. And they are often by nature inaccessible, remote, harsh, wild. So really, our role is to bring the two together to create awesome experiences,” he says. “Our role is to make them as accessible as possible to as many Canadians as possible, so that they can be enjoyed by people. And all of those initiatives are individually pretty small, but when they come together, they’re all part of creating those amazing experiences.”
He concludes, “And we need to evolve…It’s not up to people to adapt, it’s also up to us to adapt to people.” By Elizabeth Whitten