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Autism play centre opens in Vancouver

Founder stresses importance of making and playing with friends

Heather McCracken recalls how forlorn her son looked in kindergarten when the other kids were chasing each other.

"Iain was standing on the sidelines, walking on the periphery of the playground watching his friends play and didn't know how to engage with them, they didn't know how to engage him," she said. "But you could tell that the desire was there."

McCracken sought help from an expert to assist her son who has autism interact with other kids. Fourteen years later, the resident of North Vancouver is opening a play centre for children with autism in Vancouver.

Children need to make and play with friends, but this can be particularly difficult for kids with autism. So McCracken's Friend 2 Friend Play Centre will help children with social skills, emotional regulation and imaginative play.

The Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society she founded in 2002, has offered training for children in schools throughout the Lower Mainland for a decade. Friend 2 Friend offers programs worldwide and more than a year ago, opened a play centre in Beijing, China.

"Throughout that 10 years, we've had primarily parents come to us and say- we have children on the spectrum who aren't in school, who are homeschooled, who have siblings, who have cousins and they need these kinds of supports outside the school environment," McCracken said.

She's launching a centre where professionals guide children with autism and their siblings or peers in play at 2941 Kingsway near Rupert Street, with an open house Sept. 29.

"The location was specifically chosen in a community where we know that help is needed and that there are so many families there that are feeling very isolated," McCracken said. "When you're a parent of a child on the spectrum, you often do feel very isolated from other parents- Here's a place that they can go, that their children are accepted for who they are."

The Friend 2 Friend Play Centre will serve children ages 3 to 12, with the intention to welcome older children in the future. There's also a group that requires caregiver participation.

Each playgroup will accommodate five children, two children with autism and three of their peers or siblings. A speech language pathologist or professionals with their master's in special education or psychology who are certified in integrated play groups and Friend 2 Friend training will guide play in a calm environment that's designed to have a limited number of distractions and to appeal to kids' interests with themes that include space and dinosaurs.

Prices vary from family to family based on their needs.

"If we have a family come to us and say we don't have any money, then we're going to find a way to fund that program," McCracken said.

The family friendly opening runs from 2 to 4 p.m. Dr. Pamela Wolfberg, creator of the Integrated Play Groups model and a professor in special education at San Francisco State University, will be on hand to respond to questions. There will also be puppet giveaways, balloons, refreshments and program displays. For more information, see Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi

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