A local dad has taken his passion for sport and his drive to build an inclusive community to the one place he feels most at home: the skate park. Dropping into his fourth season with Spectrum Skateboard Society, Blair Durnan is helping autistic kids roll through social challenges and get physically active.

The grab

The daily ritual of skateboarding before and after his shifts working with youth with disabilities inspired Blair Durnan to pair his love of skateboarding with his education in therapeutic recreation. 

“I was working for the Developmental Disabilities Association at their location at Kensington Community Centre, which has a skate park connected to it. Eventually, the kids in the program – mostly autistic kids would come out and watch me and then a few of them wanted to learn how to skate but just due to insurance through the DDA, it just wasn’t possible to do that.”

As covid hit, Durnan had to leave his job to look after his own two sons and was wrestling with the closures of parks, playgrounds and skate parks. 

“I became their school teacher and we couldn’t go out so I built a mini ramp in the backyard and we would skate during “recess.”

Spurred into action by covid, the idea of starting an organization supporting kids through skateboarding solidified as he worked during those homeschooling breaks with his autistic son.

“Part of how his autism presents itself is that he hyper-focuses. And he would not give up. How many slams it took, it didn’t matter. He would not give up on learning or trying to trick. It rekindled my original thoughts from the DDA. And I was like, okay, when it comes back to going back to work, I want to do this. I’m going to try to start this.”

He spent the next months organizing his non-profit and service provider status and launched Spectrum Skateboard Society in the spring of 2021. This year he expects more than 250 kids to go through his programs and summer camps at Kirkstone and in Vancouver. 

Gapping understanding

From the outside, the skate park can be an intimidating place, acknowledges Durnan but that is because it has its unique etiquette. He argues it’s the most welcoming environment to learn a sport. 

“It is an intimidating place unless you spend time there. And then once you start spending time there, you see the community in it. It just doesn’t look like the community we perhaps stereotypically think of. But they’re wonderful. I’ve seen some really cool things.

“What’s also intimidating about skate parks are the skills,” said Durnan. “Seeing the really, really high-level skaters at a skate park is intimidating for anyone, it doesn’t matter if you’re a skater or not. But that being said, that’s all in your own head. The skate community is one of the most welcoming groups of people that you’ll ever come across.”

From his experience, inclusivity translates well to people with ability differences. 

“Autistic kids or neurodivergent kids don’t always do the greatest in team sports because other kids don’t accept them. Coaches don’t know how to deal with them. So they kind of feel excluded. At the skate park, you’re there to do your own thing but it is kind of a team. Everyone’s watching out for each other. And it doesn’t matter what level you’re at you’re going to get cheered on. If a really, really good skater sees you just trying to push and ride around a pylon, and you’ve tried it and tried it over and over and over again, they’re watching you. And as soon as you complete that, everyone’s cheering. And what we do as skaters is we bang our tails against the ground, our skateboards against the ground, and that’s like basically clapping.”

At the same time skateboarding offers the opportunity to learn at your own pace and in your own way, he said. 

“I think it’s a challenge of trying the tricks – and trying them over and over and over again and failing, but then when you finally succeed, it’s just such a great feeling. The skate park is just such a great welcoming and encouraging community. Everybody helps each other with tricks you’re learning. And it’s so healthy too. Gone is the image of skateboarders being punk rockers just trashing stuff. It’s not true anymore. 

“It’s not necessarily something you see in other sports because there is a certain amount of hanging out there also. That is what makes it so great compared to organized sports. You still get to participate if you’re not keeping up. If you join baseball and if you can’t keep up catching and hitting and throwing, then you’re not going to make it to the next level. You don’t get the opportunity to play anymore.”

Building skills on and off the board

Durnan has a unique ambition – different from most recreational service providers. 

“My whole goal is to have that child never come back to me and go to the skate park on their own. The goal is to give them the basics of skateboarding or the ability to skate on their own and now they can go enjoy this on their own.”

He is proud of the feedback he hears from parents sharing the beneficial effects of the program extending into other parts of the participants’ lives. 

“I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that coming to skateboarding and being involved in skateboarding has progressed their child’s physical therapy. When they go see their physical therapist, that therapist is commenting: ‘Wow, what’s happening here?’  And that’s because of skateboarding, which is amazing. My other mission is to foster friendships so kids who come not knowing anyone meet someone to go to the park with.”

A common challenge facing autistic kids is understanding and reading social situations. The skatepark is an excellent place to practice those skills too, said Durnan.

“We teach the kids as well about the skate park. There’s a whole unwritten etiquette at the skate park. Everyone kind of has their turn. You have to be able to read that at the skate park. So that’s a big part of what we teach in the very beginning.”

Getting involved

Spectrum Skateboard Society supports youth ages six – 17. It is a recognized autism service provider allowing parents to use their funding for camps and classes. They also have a scholarship fund for those that need financial aid. Skills range from never-ever to seasoned riders with a couple of kids surpassing some of the coaches. Durnan emphasizes that everyone started at the beginning. 

“In a typical skateboard class, you would have one instructor to eight to 10 kids. I have more like six instructors to eight kids usually, because a lot of the kids with the way their autism presents itself, need one-on-one support. And another big thing is falling.

“Because of sensitivities and hypersensitivity, I just don’t want to risk falling onto the hard concrete and then that child or youth just not ever wanting to do it again because of that one fall. So we always have our eyes on every kid. We’re usually running around holding hands.”

Prior to lessons, Durnan and/or a Spectrum Skateboard Society volunteer director, who is an expert from the Able Clinic, speak with parents and participants to understand their child’s needs. Instructors are trained with Canada Skateoard and specifically to support autistic kids. Durnan meets annually with the City of Vancouver’s skate park hosts so they understand what behaviours they may see if a skater in a Spectrum Skateboard Society t-shirt shows up. 

“They will go and approach them, get them out there, make them feel comfortable in the skate park, talk to the parents.”

Looking to the future

Spectrum Skateboard Society has a growing reputation and gets requests to offer programs throughout BC. Durnan is also working on overcoming more local challenges: the weather. 

“Our skaters finally find something where they belong, they feel like they can do it, and they want to continue to do it. And now we’re kind of the only kind of activity that they do. It’s been a struggle trying to keep this going all year round because it rains here so much. It’s super dangerous to skateboard in the rain.

“It’s been a real struggle to try to find an indoor spot through the winter because the majority, I would say 95% of our attendees want to continue this all year round. The lack of indoor opportunities is a struggle. I’ve managed to do it. Something’s always come through, but I don’t know. I’m always wondering what the winter’s going to hold.”

There is a misconception Durnan says that skateboards will ruin the floors or arena.

“That’s just not the case. What people don’t realize is that our instructors are walking most of the time and the skaters that we have are basically just rolling.”

Practicing year-round helps build skills and comfort that Durnan hopes leads to a lifelong love for the sport. 

“If you’re not a good enough hockey player, sorry, you’re not going up to the next level. Now you’re aged out and you can’t even play anymore,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen in skateboarding. It doesn’t matter. There are no coaches. Nobody is telling you what to do and when to do it or how to do it. Everybody does the same tricks. The difference with skateboarding – and it goes with skiing and snowboarding too – everyone looks different when they do their trick. It’s like everyone has their own style of doing it. And it makes it unique to them. And that’s, and I think that’s when the people start to say that it’s more like an art form. People make it their own.”

To learn more about the Spectrum Skateboard Society visit its website.

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