Sports are for everyone. 

That was the message being reinforced by the Calgary Sport and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC) when they introduced their new inclusion program on last August. 

According to a Calgary Flames Foundation press release, the program will help create a better sense of inclusion and opportunity to participate in sports for the “BIPOC individuals, people with disabilities, women and girls and the LGBTQ+ community.” 

One of the many initiatives added to the inclusion program was availability of The Assist Sensory Kits, created by Paige Dowd and Kodette LaBarbera. 

These kits give people who are on the spectrum or others coping with sensory challenges the opportunity to enjoy CSEC events in a comfortable and stress-free environment. They are located at guest services at the Scotiabank Saddledome and McMahon Stadium and are currently free to use at all Calgary Flames, Hitmen, Roughnecks, and Stampeders games.

Lyndon Parakin, the executive director of Autism Calgary, understands the importance of creating a sense of inclusion and comfort in public spaces for those on the spectrum. After all, Parakin has spent the last 16 years providing assistance to those who have navigated a life on the spectrum and or their family members through systems of support and peer networking offered at Autism Calgary.

Kodette LaBarbera (left) poses with her husband, Jason (top-right), and her two sons, Ryder (center) and Easton (bottom-right). PHOTO SUPPLIED BY: KATIE STAJAN

However, that fear of judgment lessens when venues like Scotiabank Saddledome or McMahon Stadium strive to make their events more inclusive for all communities. The change is a step in the right direction.

“It’s incredibly welcoming. I think it kind of represents a change in public understanding of making events more open to everybody. To diversity in general,” says Parakin.

“To be in a venue where diversity is celebrated and there are deliberate offerings to give accommodations for people with differences. You can ask for support, you can ask for help. You don’t have to have an uncertainty that people are going to be judgmental or critical.”

Co-creator of the Assist Sensory Kit, Kodette LaBarbera, also knows about the struggles a person with sensory challenges can experience. Her 13-year-old son, Ryder, was diagnosed with autism when he was just three years old. 

“I know at least with Ryder, all his senses are heightened. He can hear so much, everything is so loud to him. His eyesight, his smell, his everything.”

Cue the sensory kits. These kits come with a variety of items, including a foam puck, specialized headphones, fidget toys, crayons, sunglasses, sanitary items, and activity sheets. All of these items are meant to help guests feel comfortable by diminishing the louder aspects of the events.

The Assist Sensory Kits provide an assortment of items including but not limited to crayons, wet wipes, fidget toys, a foam puck, headphones, and a social story. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY: KODETTE LABARBERA

However, one of the more interesting items in the kit involves a booklet, called a social story, that explains exactly what goes on at the event in order to prepare the person for what’s to come. 

In LaBarbera’s eyes, this is one of the more important items in the kit for Ryder.

“If you have a child or you’re supporting a loved one on the spectrum and they’re facing stresses that other people around them might not understand, you kind of fear that judgment.”

Lyndon Parakin

“For my family personally, [the social story] is one of the biggest key points to it because explaining what’s going to happen really sets Ryder up for more success.”

While the social story does an excellent job at prepping the person on what to expect at the event, Parakin also believes the booklet can also be beneficial for the person’s loved ones or caregiver. 

The kit also helps LaBarbera at events like hockey games, as she is often tasked with balancing Ryder’s needs with the needs of her younger son, Easton, who is 10. 

“For my younger son, who is a typical child and sports-obsessed, it starts to wear on him [because] he’s limited now. He wants to stay in the stands and watch the game, but Ryder’s not capable,” says LaBarbera. 

“Everybody and their family just want to feel normal, and that they belong and fit in and they can go about life essentially.”

Ryder LaBarbera (left) sits next to his brother, Easton (right), wearing matching ‘Ryder’s Crew’ shirts. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY: KODETTE LABARBERA

Since their introduction at the start of the Flames, Hitmen, and Roughnecks seasons, Dowd and LaBarbera’s kits have found a considerable amount of success within the Scotiabank Saddledome. The Flames have approached LaBarbera with more and more orders as their kits — which are no charge at CSEC events and are free to take home after — are in constant demand from guests. 

LaBarbera has received nothing but great responses from families and individuals who have used their kits at a CSEC event. 

“It’s reassuring to a lot of families and it’s like, ‘Okay, you know what? We can wear this kit and my son can wear these headphones at the rink and no one’s going to think anything of it,’” says LaBarbera.

While the kits have found continued success at CSEC events, there is lots of room to expand. Parakin believes that there is a use for sensory kits just about anywhere. 

“I think anywhere where there is a gathering of the public and things we take for granted, maybe in some sort of spiritual facilities, churches, synagogues and mosques. Maybe in the grocery store,” says Parakin

As for the Assist Sensory Kits, LaBarbera hopes to expand to reach more audiences globally and locally. This would include getting more professional-level teams to include the sensory kits at their venues while donating kits to local hockey rinks, even malls and theatres.

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Matt DeMille is an aspiring sports journalist entering his fourth year in Mount Royal University’s communication program. He is also the sports editor at The Reflector.