Following a pioneering announcement in 2015 of a partnership with Giant Steps School in Montreal, the city of Laval is now well on its way to earning the title of the first autism-inclusive city in Quebec, and perhaps even in Canada. All key areas of community and citizen life are slated for improvement for children and adults with autism, such as public transit, housing, employment, education, health, tourism and the arts/entertainment.

In just the few short months following the announcement, the city has blazoned a path towards achieving this goal by launching into the first phase of the transformation: training emergency service responders such as police officers and firefighters to better respond to the needs of people with autism in an emergency situation. In addition to ongoing training for emergency personnel, the Société de transport de Laval (STL) has also taken on initiatives through awareness programs for their drivers.

“People with autism are able to grow and contribute to society but they sometimes need to be approached in a particular way that better suits their needs,” says Mayor of Laval, Marc Demers.

A Round-Table Discussion

Though some major cities in Canada and the U.S. have begun small steps towards creating more inclusive activities for citizens, belief that more could be done here for people with autism and their families was born out of a discussion that took place a few years ago at a conference hosted by Andre Pereira, co-founder of Montreal Autism in Motion. Pereira, who is Vice-President of the Board of Directors at Giant Steps and father of an eight year old boy with autism, brought together leaders of various community organizations, parents and other stakeholders. The idea was to reach out to municipalities to discuss what could be done through a large-scale movement aimed at improving all aspects of everyday life for those with autism.

At that meeting was Nicholas Katalifos, Chair of the Board of Directors at Giant Steps. Katalifos, who is also principal at Roslyn Elementary School and the father of a 14 year old boy with autism, knew that this was a cause he wanted to support in any way he could, so he approached Vice-Mayor of Laval, David De Cotis. “The idea was to work with the municipality to make it a truly integrated and inclusive type of city as far as people with autism are concerned,” says Katalifos.

De Cotis was on board immediately, and set up a meeting between Pereira, Katalifos and Mayor Demers, where an initial presentation was made outlining how municipalities can better serve the needs of this diverse population. The Mayor’s cabinet did not hesitate to give the project the green light, and as a result, several initiatives are already underway and more are in the works to touch on all key areas of community living. “This is the first major municipality in Canada, to our knowledge, to take on an initiative like this to this extent,” says De Cotis.

Beyond Education

Giant Steps is the only private education institution in Quebec that caters exclusively to students with autism spectrum disorders. According to Seiun Thomas Henderson, Director General of Giant Steps, education programs in both the private and public sectors have come a long way since the early 1990s, but still more is needed to better respond to the needs of students with autism. What’s more, Henderson explains that the need for a true inclusive city must be looked at through the lens of students eventually becoming adults in society and “aging out” of many of the services already in place for youth.

“There are questions of access and inclusiveness that go beyond education and special needs services,” says Henderson. “We are looking at accessibility legislations that are established on a municipal level that are designed to support people with disabilities broadly, but these don’t really reflect the needs of a population like people with autism, whose needs can be profoundly different.”

Laval Police & Firefighters Undergoing New Training

The first phase of Laval’s inclusion project is all about training emergency responders, which includes police officers and firefighters across the city. “As a police department, we serve a very diverse clientele and we have multiple interactions on a daily basis with the citizens of Laval. It’s important for us to be able to know how to better react and interact with children and adults with autism,” says Pierre Brochet, Laval’s Chief of Police. Over the course of 2016, Laval officers and agents will be receiving ongoing training and strategies for this purpose, including working with other municipal agencies to implement an adapted procedure in arresting or approaching individuals with autism. Laval currently has a system in place in which civil employees under the umbrella of Urgence Social are already trained to be called upon 24-7 to help an officer better communicate/interact with a citizen with challenges, such as those associated with people with autism.

Last November, approximately 20 fire department captains across Laval received a special autism awareness training provided by the Giant Steps Resource & Training Center, which was then followed by an internal training of 80 firefighters last December. According to Laval Fire Chief Robert Séguin, by July 2016 over 280 firefighters across the city will have received specialty training aligned with the inclusive city project. “Our goal is to understand the different forms of autism and how to best respond to people with autism in an emergency situation and get them out safely,” explains Séguin.

A Montreal-based artist with autism who is known by the name Remrov, is also on the Board of Directors at Giant Steps as a community representative, and has been consulted on certain aspects of this city-wide project. “First responders in general and doctors in hospitals need to know more about autism. It is very important that they recognize certain behavior as autistic instead of threatening or disrespectful,” explains Remrov. “They need to know how to communicate with people with autism, and how they can calm a person down who is in distress.”

Both Brochet and Séguin outline plans for Laval to create a voluntary registry, similar to one Ottawa implemented in 2010, that would allow first responders to have access to information about the residents in a particular area, creating a scenario in which they can better plan the intervention required, knowing in advance that there is child or adult with autism at the location in question. Séguin explains that with the ongoing training, firefighters now have a better idea of how a person with autism may or may not react to an emergency situation. “This awareness campaign serves to give all first responders the basic tools and strategies needed to respond appropriately to this group of citizens,” adds Séguin.

Public Transportation

As the use of public transportation can sometimes be a difficult and chaotic experience for people with autism, the STL has also begun implementing initiatives in the city-wide project of inclusiveness. “When we were approached in 2015 about this project, we were interested right away in being implicated because the idea already aligned with our own vision of making the STL even more accessible for those with various challenges,” says Sylvain Yelle, STL’s Director General.

In addition to the basic training already provided, 2016 will see ongoing training for all STL drivers in the context of autism awareness. On several occasions this year, the STL provided informational kiosks outlining this campaign and giving drivers an additional forum to address their questions and improve their knowledge base.

Yelle notes that later in 2016, the STL will launch a new mobile app called STL Compagnon, which has been designed to help people with certain challenges, such as those associated with autism, better navigate the city using public transport services. “Laval has a strong will to meet the needs of people with autism and their families,” says Yelle.

Work Force

Though people with autism have particular talents and strengths that make them an asset to a variety of businesses, many adults with autism struggle to find or keep employment in the long term. “We have to focus on the adults with autism in our community who want to play a role in society and work, and part of this cause is to support that,” says Katalifos. “We will work together with other advocacy groups and adults with autism to support this cause.”

Raynald Adams, a Laval City Councillor, notes that the city is working to create a partnership with the Chamber of Commerce to highlight this area. A conference slated to take place in late 2016 will be dedicated to the topic of employment opportunities for adults with autism and other challenges, and the hope is that local businesses will participate, thereby continuing the spirit of awareness. Adams, who is also Chairman of Laval’s Advisory Committee on accessibility and a member of the Executive Committee, explains that people with autism may require some special considerations in the workforce, but that their talent and skill is currently underrepresented. “An inclusive city for people with autism is a city where everyone can contribute to the development and well-being of our community life, and that goes for everyone, regardless of their individual challenges,” says Adams.

On the topic of employers and workforce environments, Remrov knows first-hand some of the challenges people with autism face. “A good foundation of basic understanding is crucial,” says Remrov. “Creating companies where people with autism can work is very important—a place where they feel safe, where they are understood and also where people recognize their talents.”

According to the Government of Canada’s website on health, $11.4 million in funding over four years was announced in the 2014 Economic Action Plan to help create employment opportunities for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, by expanding a network of vocational training programs in centers across Canada.

Community and Cultural Events

Pereira and Katalifos make mention of the city-wide project’s aim to make other aspects of everyday life more accessible for children and adults with autism and their families. This includes sensory-friendly movie screenings at local cinemas, family travel packages/itineraries that are autism-friendly, as well as getting local sports and recreation organizations involved to create more inclusive activity opportunities. The Laval Symphony is studying the possibility of a sensory-friendly dress rehearsal which could take place later this year.

It All Starts with Awareness

Pereira is hoping that the city of Laval will go as far as looking at urban planning that makes cities more accommodating for adults with autism who may need to navigate busy city centers to access necessities or support services. A graduate student of architecture at Kansas State University, Elisabeth Decker, recently made waves when she designed and developed an urban planning model to enable adults with autism to live independently. Decker designed the model with her autistic brother in mind, bringing together public transport and services with green areas, markets and housing.

For the time being, the decision-makers of our city are ploughing ahead with designing multiple phases into the project of Laval being the first autism-inclusive city in Quebec, and perhaps even in Canada. “Our biggest investment in this project is a human one—support for those involved. The most important elements required with a project like this are heart and empathy,” says Mayor Demers.

Katalifos elaborates on what an autism-inclusive city would mean for his teenaged son. “It means that he will be able to participate in the life of his city like anyone else, that he’ll have access to activities and services that will allow him to participate, access to employment, and ultimately, that despite whatever challenges he may have, that he will receive the respect that he deserves like anyone else,” he says. “The only way to do that is to set up the structure of a city that allows for this, and it all starts with awareness.”

De Cotis seconds the notion that whenever big changes are needed, it must come from a place of awareness and acceptance. “This project is really a win-win for all parties involved,” he says. “Sometimes we fear the unknown, but having an inclusive city will break down those barriers, and that’s what this project is about.”

For Pereira, an inclusive city is not only an ideal but a viable plan. “The end goal is full inclusion,” he says. “In a neuro-diverse world, we are looking to create a movement leading to more inclusion and openness for children and adults with autism.”

For more information on this project, visit www.autisminclusivecity.com