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CAN family skate

Friday, 18.02.2011 / 7:02 PM / Features
By Derek Jory
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CAN family skate

Jesse and Zack Thibeault share one intangible that suggests they play hockey: flowing hockey hair.

The 16-year-old twins, dressed in matching jeans and shoes with each wearing a sports t-shirt, are also tall and lanky and they undoubtedly share a unique Sedin-like chemistry that only twins can.

The lone thing preventing Jesse and Zack from enjoying NHL careers in the future is their difficulty to thrive in social and recreational settings.

Jesse and Zack live with autism, a neurobiological condition that, according to Autism Canada Foundation, impacts normal brain development and can leave individuals with communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour.

Participating in organized team sports is a challenge for Jesse and Zack, but on Saturday, February 5th, they were put in a situation they couldn’t shy away from as they laced up their skates for the Canucks Autism Network (CAN) family skate at Rogers Arena.

Three hundred and fifty skaters took to the ice, including 50 volunteers from CAN, and they were joined by Vancouver Canucks Manny Malhotra, Kevin Bieksa and mascot FIN.

While most raced after one of the Canucks for an autograph and a photo, Jesse and Zack, followed closely by parents Karren and Stephen, were circling the ice, hair untamed and everywhere as if they were speeding down the highway in a drop top.

“It's really nice because it gives the boys the opportunity to socialize with kids along their same care group, so there’s no inhibitions in worry about having to keep up with sort of typical kids,” said Karren. “They sort of feel like they’re a happy family when they all get together and they feel very comfortable.”

The annual CAN Skate aims to provide precisely that, it’s an escape from what can be a challenge way to face life for both children living with autism and their parents; a lot of times these families don’t get the opportunity to participate in fun, meaningful activities together.

If smiles and laughter are a gage for how successful this skate was, it will go down as one of the best ever. That put an equally big smile on the face of Jodi Simkin, executive director of CAN.

“Some of these kids are putting on skates for just the first or second time, we started teaching skating last year and it was a big hit and it’s something some of our families don’t ever get to do,” said Simkin. “You pair that all together and we have an experience here that they would never get to do otherwise.”

Skating alongside Malhotra and Bieksa was also something these children would otherwise never get to do, but CAN events will become second nature to Malhotra soon enough.

Picking up where former Canuck Willie Mitchell left off, Malhotra will lend his name and Mannyness to be the official Canucks player spokesperson for CAN. In this role Malhotra will be a positive role model to both kids with and without autism by helping kids and adults throughout B.C. better understand what autism is.

Part of the reason Malhotra chose to come to Vancouver last off-season was because of how active the Canucks are in the community and he is ecstatic to be in a position to influence positive change and support those with autism.

“It’s an incredible honour to be put in this position after all the great work that Willie did as spokesperson for CAN,” said Malhotra. “After learning what the organization is all about, I’m even more proud to be a part of it and be associated with it. To be able to be a part of a day like today is a lot of fun.

“Being a parent, you really cherish those times when you get a helping hand and get assistance that’s needed. Obviously these families are going through difficult times and to know that CAN is doing all they can to help them and support them is a good feeling.”

Although Malhotra has just recently taken on this new role, it didn’t take him long to realize what an incredible organization CAN is. All he had to do was take a look at the 50 volunteers on hand, on a Saturday afternoon, a sunny Saturday afternoon, to see how passionate everyone involved is.

One of the key volunteers helping out is a big part of the CAN family. Nishel Lal, a special education assistant at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School, is a coach with CAN and a major player in of some of the network’s big programs like the I CAN Play Sports Series, which includes soccer, swimming and skating.

Lal has been with CAN since it opens its doors in 2008 and in that time he’s been a part of some incredible transformations. It’s remarkable how a child with autism can grow and develop in the right situations.

“The progression is amazing and it’s stuff that seems so simple,” explained Lal. “You have children who just need the chance to learn. At first all I could see was what the children couldn’t do, now over time I’ve seen what they can do and it’s amazing.

“I’ve also seen how kids can connect. I really didn’t fully understand that before and now I see how they actually build real friendships and they help each other out. It’s very rewarding.”