Sensory backpacks make mall trips easier for parents of kids with disabilities

A new program to arm parents with backpacks full of sensory items and distractions is designed to make life easier for Calgary families with kids who have sensory disabilities such as autism.

Southcentre Mall has teamed up with two local charity organizations to make packs accessible to parents who would usually find shopping trips a daunting experience.

“It’s a really important initiative,” said Jana Hands, CEO of Variety, the Children’s Charity of Alberta, which supports kids living with disabilities and special needs.

“Kids with these disabilities can have a difficult time filtering out external stimuli, so having tools that support them out in public is important to help them adjust or help them before they escalate,” said Hands.

Variety CEO Jana Hands says the program gives kids a chance to do normal things like go shopping at the mall. It also removes some of the stress that parents face. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The packs are full of books, colourful sensory toys and tactile items for kids that help them self-direct and keep calm. 

“We know there are families that need special treatment, and we’re proud to have this service here,” said Alexandra Velosa, marketing manager at Southcentre Mall. 

Velosa says parents can pick up a backpack at the mall’s guest services desk and return it when they’re done shopping, free of charge. The packs and contents are then sanitized and ready to be used again.

“We’re so excited that it’s launching and families can come out and know they have the right tools,” said Catherine Del Rosario of the Calgary Wildrose Lions Club. 

“We want to make sure that kids have the same experience as their peers,” said Del Rosario. “They tend to stay away from public places. To have the tools here, that will just make their world even bigger.”

Rosario says the program also sends a message to parents that they are supported.

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