The fourth annual Autism Awareness Day walk will go ahead this year but with a new twist.
Rather than its usual route down Birch Avenue, the walk, organized by Blue Sky’s Autism Services will follow a trail of blue rocks from the South Cariboo Rec Centre to the South Cariboo Visitor Centre, where participants enjoy a Story Walk with the book, The Super Hero Brain: Explaining Autism to Empower Kids.
The walk is slated for Friday, April 23, from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Blue Sky’s team will be there from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to hand out pamphlets and provide some take-home activities for children. The Story Walk outside the Parkside Art Gallery will also feature autism-related stories this month.
“Last year we did have to cancel because of COVID, everything got shut down right then, so it’s really important for us to keep the momentum we started four years ago going, so parents can have this day to really feel proud of who they and their families are,” said Krysta Stewart, founder of Blue Sky’s Autism Services.
The event was first put on in 2016 to promote awareness and acceptance during Autism Month, held every April.
Stewart said they had started with a simple walk down Birch Avenue to mark the month but, as time went on, used it as a way to actively engage with and educate the community. Before then, she said there was no event to celebrate autism awareness in the community. ‘
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In 2019, about 60 people participated in the march, with the team distributing facts about autism before ending with a story walk.
“My greatest hope is that other businesses in the community will help by coming and seeing what we’re doing and collaborate. The biggest thing, I feel, is that we need more collaboration between all the organizations in this town that support people with special needs,” Stewart said. “We’re all doing something, but we should all be doing something together.”
Raising awareness about autism is a full-time job for Stewart, who has operated Blue Sky’s Autism Services on her ranch at Lone Butte for the last four-and-a-half years.
She runs a diverse array of programs to help autistic children and their families, including an early intervention program for the ages of one to six, a homeschool program for those six and older not yet ready for public school and social groups for children over the age of six.
“We use the animals, nature and the fact we’re on a big ranch (to our advantage). We have a lot of room to incorporate all kinds of learning with a holistic approach to our kids,” Stewart said.
Stewart’s care and patience with the children are evident as she lets them play and do things on their own, while always being ready to lend a helping hand.
Rather than have them sit in a classroom and learn behaviour they’ll forget when they leave the class, she works to improve their coordination, communication, socialization, self-awareness, cognitive thinking and listening skills while playing with animals, walking and simply going about their day.
Stewart has spent the past 20 years working in this field.
She originally started doing it as a way to get her own children into the public school system but over time she realized she had a knack for dealing with neuro-divergent children with challenging behaviour.
Stewart grew her skills with education and got into work with special needs children full time, a job she loves and finds rewarding. She currently works with 18 families and 20 children from those families at her ranch.
“It was just a natural knack I stumbled upon.”