Fort Gibraltar

At times, finding autism-friendly summer activities, especially new ones, can be challenging. That’s why, when something works, it’s worth sharing. The experience below is one that happened a few years ago; and still stands out as an excellent day trip, made that way primarily by the staff.

First of all, the basics. Fort Gibraltar is located in Winnipeg, just off of Provencher. It was built to show people a bit of what life was like living in an outpost of the Northwest Company during Manitoba’s fur trade era. For many Winnipeggers it’s best known as the location of Festivale de Voyageur in February, but as I found out it has something pretty cool to offer in the summer as well. I went to Fort Gibraltar with my cousin A. At 9, she loves pretty much any field trip or adventure you suggest to her, will talk my ear off about, well, anything, but is definitely very shy when it comes to strangers. Usually when we go places the odd adult will try to interact with her then politely give up when there isn’t much response, trusting that she and I can handle ourselves. Fort Gibraltar, though, wasn’t quite like that.

As soon as we came in, one of the staff introduced himself. He was loud, energetic, and maybe a little surprised at A’s refusal to take his hat. He explained a few details of the Fort’s history then let us tour the walkway and tower on our own. In the general store, he was back, introducing himself as Dylan. He made some conversation with me, but his focus was still clearly on A. If I pointed out something to her (“hey look at this turtle”) he rolled with it, asking her questions about favourite animals, or other related topics. It was clear he had a spiel for the location, but it was also clear he was more interested in engaging the kid in front of him then delivering his pre-planned speech. He hung around for a while then gave us some space again.

In the woodworking shop, our experience was similar. This time it was a woman, again showing us as many things as she could, all for the purpose of engaging A in the place she was visiting. The next stop was the blacksmith’s shop.

By this point a daycare group had arrived and I figured the staff would be pretty focused on them, meaning we may need to have shorter stays in each place. Instead the blacksmith sat us down to show us the work he did. This in itself was huge. A processes verbally, but she definitely learns best from visuals. The blacksmith worked on a piece of metal, explaining some steps, but also letting her ask questions when she wanted, and simply watch and take pictures when she preferred. At the end of the process A. got to keep the fruits of the blacksmith’s labour – a beautiful leaf. She was thrilled.

In our last stop of the day we met up with Dylan again, as well as another staff member. They were prepping for the daycare group, but quickly paused to chat with A. Again the focus was all about finding things they thought would interest her, following up on the ones that worked and shifting approach with the ones that didn’t. At one point they tried to convince her to play a board game, then, realizing that wasn’t comfortable for her, demonstrated the game together instead, posing for pictures. They weren’t afraid to look goofy either, dancing around as they demonstrated instruments to her.

So what’s my point in sharing of all this? First of all, to recognize a job well done. Fort Gibraltar’s staff rocked it (to borrow a phrase that cracks A. up). They were patient and welcoming and seemed interested in their jobs. They made what would have been a good experience into a really, really great one.

But secondly, I want to highlight a more general reality. Sometimes people think that interacting with kids with autism is about as intimidating as it gets. We try, they don’t respond the way we expect, and we panic. My hope by sharing this story is to reduce some of that feeling of intimidation by pointing out exactly what simple things the staff at Fort Gibraltar did:

  1. They SAW her. This, in my mind, is the biggest and most important thing. I’m not sure if any of the staff knew that A. is autistic, but I do know that either way they were way more focused on her as an individual rather than as a label. Their goal, at all times, was to engage her as that individual, to figure out exactly who she was and what about the fort she would enjoy the most.
  2. They followed my lead. The staff used my interactions with A. not as a cop out or a reason to avoid interaction with her themselves, but as a guide to their attempts. Recognizing what made her most comfortable made them much more effective in connecting.
  3. They persisted. And they gave us space. Again this was partly due to them following my lead, but no one at Fort Gibraltar assumed that lack of typical response = lack of interest.
  4. They focused on what WAS happening instead of on what was SUPPOSED to happen. We talk about autism making kids rigid, but what I’ve seen more of is rigidity in adults. Over and over I’ve seen adults come into an interaction with the kids I do respite for with assumptions about how it will go, only to be completely thrown off when the response is different.

Overall, I’d like to highlight again how impressed I was by this experience. And, in case you were wondering, A. loved it too. She chattered the whole way home about showing Dylan her necklace, showing Dad her leaf, and still lights up when I show her the pictures from that day.

As noted, this post was written a couple of years ago. I can’t promise that the staff will be the same, but I would suggest that Fort Gibraltar is worth a shot.

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