Our most significant change was moving from in-person to the virtual world. We were uncertain about the response of our members and how well our programs could be adapted to an on-line format.
Many of our members do not fit traditional recreation programs for “typical” children nor do they fit programs for children with disabilities. ASD children/youth come with their own unique social and recreational needs – programs where staff understand their abilities. Opportunities to be physically and socially active are provided through our programs. ASD is related to a greater and earlier chance of obesity due to unusual diets, the use of anti-psychotic drugs and inactivity.
Isolation has always been an issue for the autism community. The current climate created by the pandemic has increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. Removal of routine is extremely difficult for individuals with autism. There may not be adequate supports in the home to deal with extended periods of self-isolation. The mental health of everyone, parents, children, siblings, is at risk.
When we suspended our programs and activities March 13, 2020, we knew the ASD community would be severely impacted. We reviewed our programs to see which would be suitable to a virtual platform, which would encourage good eating habits, and allow members to maintain contact with their friends.
The program we decided upon was Stepping Out. Developed by Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser for her Master’s Degree, Stepping Out empowers individuals with ASD to make physical activity part of their daily lives and improve their on-going health. Simply stated the goals are: 1) Improved fitness and nutrition; 2) Reduction of obesity; 3) Increased mental well-being and quality of life; and, 4) Work and recreation preparation.
Stepping Out does not require any specialized equipment, translated well to a virtual environment and was suitable for all ages and stages. We had staff available to run the weekly program (Wednesday for 18+ and Saturday for 4-17 yrs) and practicum students from U of C and Mount Royal University.
Each session has a maximum of seven (7) participants for eight (8) weeks. Participants explore the fundamentals of healthy living through physical activity and social games. As a team, they explore the fun of physical movement including circuit workouts, yoga and meditation.
We will continue to offer virtual programs for our members who respond well to this environment but who would not engage with an in-person program.