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March 21, 2023

A special space for special kids

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Melissa Hargraves

It’s not always easy to find somewhere safe for your children to play, let alone kids who have special needs. Starting today, Lismore organisation PlayQuest (PQ) Cafe and Play are providing a weekly dedicated afternoon of play for families and carers of special-needs children.

PQ owner and manager Darren Bell says it’s important to acknowledge the needs of parents and carers, in addition to their children.

He told Echonetdaily, ‘These sessions will provide a safe environment where kids can interact naturally and the parents can feel nurtured and supported without any guilt or shame. I’ve been shocked to discover that many parents in our community would prefer to stay home than suffer the harsh judgment of others because of the misunderstood behaviour of their children.

‘At PlayQuest, we have consciously created an environment that does not overstimulate these kids, which will include a cool-down room where they can go and have some time out if they feel overstimulated.’

There are many items in our day-to-day lives that we take for granted on a sensory level. PQ has created a multi-sensory board that works with colour, textures and everyday items for special-needs children.

‘A common tool used in multi-sensory circles is a kinaesthetic or tactile board. It is basically a board that provides children with a variety of textures and objects that they can distinguish by themselves.

‘Practical objects from an average household have also been used, even a toilet seat! We recently held a competition on our Facebook page to guess what the mystery object was beneath the seat and had some very colourful responses.’

Also on the board is a trolley wheel. How many children have thought of making a tactile connection with one, but the supermarket or carpark opportunity is not exactly a safe one!

‘This has really opened my understanding of the basic things that we overlook. The simplicity of things can get carried away by technological stimulation. We have things in our own home that can develop a child’s innate curiosity. This will be available to everyone, but we will have dedicated sessions for special-needs children.’

The sessions are the beginning of a program that Darren hopes to expand.

‘Our multi-sensory board is part one of a three-stage program. Part one will also include strictly supervised pet therapy and a sensory garden. I realised early on that to develop this to where I envisage it to be will be time and capital intensive. So we have started off with local cost-effective materials to get the program kicked off the ground.

‘We want to show our commitment to council and from there we are hoping to get some support.’

Many parents and carers may have children with undiagnosed special needs. I wondered if children needed a diagnosis before attending the sessions.

‘No. I think it would be a slippery slope if we did require that clinical approach to it. This is a new venture for us and we will roll with it, take feedback and develop it as we go along. Basically, if your child suffers in a standard environment for whatever reason, then we will create a space for them.’

Graeme from the Casino Neighbourhood Centre is a support worker for primary-school kids in after-school care, and has worked for over thirty years in disabilities and mental health. He believes that the dedicated sessions for children with special needs are desperately needed.

‘It is extremely hard for us to access places that we can take these children, as parks are mostly full. This will provide a safe area for the children to play. There is a park near the Tender Center in Lismore that has a wheelchair swing but it has been vandalised twice, which is sad. That park is the best for us but it is always full.

‘I work with children who have Asperger’s syndrome, autism, Down syndrome and many others. This space created by PQ is extremely important for their socialisation skills. They get to experience the same things as other kids, which is great for their growth and development.’

I asked Graeme if he could share the positive attributes of clustering special-needs children together.

‘These children are more accepted within that dynamic. In general they are less judgmental. The general public are very good too. We often have kids that are playing football hand the football to our children and they let them have a go.’

Special needs are a growing demographic in the northern rivers. Summerland Early Intervention has been an integral part of the creation of these sessions. Wilson Park and Wyrallah Road School have both shown support for the sessions.

The inaugural session will kick off with a sausage sizzle to raise funds for Team Ashton (http://www.teamashton.com.au) this Wednesday Sep 12 from 3 to 5pm. Admission is free.

Following that the weekly sessions will be held each Wednesday afternoon from 3 to 6pm at normal entrance prices. PQ will be closed to the general public, and siblings of special needs children are welcome for a family-inclusive time. The sessions will be on hold over the upcoming school holidays. Go to http://playquest.com.au for more details.


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