Autism festival moves after protests take over Olympic Square

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Despite months of planning and the necessary municipal permits, organizers scrambled to find a new venue.

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An annual celebration for Calgarians living with autism has chosen to move to another location due to ongoing freedom protests in the area.

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The Autism Asperger’s Friendship Society (AAFS) and Autism Calgary team up to host a festival for Calgary’s autism community each year on April 2 in recognition of World Autism Awareness Day.

The festival has been held at the Olympic Plaza for nine years, until organizers realized nearby freedom protests would negatively impact attendees with sensory disabilities, the event coordinator explained, Tracy Mendoza.

“If there were honking, people protesting, or loud sounds that weren’t in the accepted sensory domain, we were afraid the kids would have a reaction,” Mendoza said.

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a lifelong neurological condition that affects verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction. A person with autism may process sensory information differently, so loud noises or unexpected situations can feel overwhelming and frightening.

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As a result, four months of planning had to be squeezed into a week, Mendoza said. The organizers had received their town event for Olympic Plaza a week or two prior, which meant that all of their effort, time and payment spent on the location was forfeited.

Zumba dancers get the crowd moving during an event celebrating Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day at the Calgary Stampede Youth Campus in Calgary on Saturday, April 2, 2022.
Zumba dancers get the crowd moving during an event celebrating Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day at the Calgary Stampede Youth Campus in Calgary on Saturday, April 2, 2022. Gavin Young/Postmedia

“It upset our plans. I mean, our heart is usually in Olympic Plaza, but there’s nothing we can do,” she said.

“I am an autistic mother and I have been doing this for 21 years. So whatever we’re treated to, we deal with. This is not new to our community. Like all parents, caregivers and educators who have children with autism, we have to deal with all that is happening.

AAFS was able to secure a new location at the Calgary Stampede Youth Campus, which was secured through financial support from event sponsors. Posters with the new location had to be printed, existing floor plans changed, families notified, and every vendor called.

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“We did a lot of planning, but we got a lot done in a week.”

About 800 people came to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day at the new venue on Saturday. Families and residents enjoyed food trucks, vendors, arts activities, shows, games and contests, including giveaways and bubbles.

Lyndon Parakin, executive director of Autism Calgary, said World Autism Awareness Day is about giving people who identify as autistic or on the spectrum an opportunity to celebrate what makes them unique and different.

“We’re not going to let political distractions stop us. We were determined to find a place that would make this possible, a place that would celebrate not only autism, but our autism community in Calgary,” Parakin said.

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Although the protests have kept them away from the Olympic Plaza, Parakin said the annual event may have found its new home at the site of the youth campus.

“We came here to the Calgary Stampede campus and we still have that same culture, that same feeling. This might be the best place for that. Nothing was lost, and maybe that made us stronger together.

Calgary police monitored about 125 protesters at the Olympic Plaza on Saturday afternoon, a turnout significantly lower than the estimated 5,000 protesters in mid-February. At peak times, police say there were 500 people present.

According to a press release, police have arrested one person based on outstanding warrants and eight traffic summonses have been issued.

Police say all restraining orders were followed. The protest ended around 4 p.m.

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Ward 11 County Kourtney Penner said it was hard to hear the event chose to change location due to the downtown protests.

“People need to rethink how they engage in our downtown and in our public spaces, and to me, that’s disappointing,” Penner said.

Penner said she would ask the city administration to review future Olympic Plaza-only events to start conversations with organizers about how to handle the situation.

“We have to make sure we understand who has priority. What measures can be put in place for the safety of all participants? she says.

“There are still many questions about the impact of the protests on the people of Calgary and their right to enjoy our cities together and to come together. It’s definitely a nuanced and complex situation.

Ward 7 County. Terry Wong said he agreed with Penner that the city administration should be proactive in reaching out to organizers affected by the downtown protests.

“As a councillor, I expect the city to do a better job of coordinating various activities, festivals and events. It’s no different when people apply for permits,” Wong said. “The city could have coordinated this a little better.”

[email protected]

Twitter: @BrittGervaisAB

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