Photo credit: Giant Steps Autism Centre

This Week’s Podcast

I’m speaking with Marla Cable, the Assistant Director of the Resource and Training Centre at Giant Steps Interdisciplinary Autism Centre in Montreal, Quebec, which houses the developmental approach, individualized private school in the public interest with both English and French instruction, serving students aged 4 to 21 with an autism diagnosis. We heard about the school just over a year ago, but they have now moved into their new facility and Marla is here to tell us about the new Autism Centre.

Giant Steps Interdisciplinary Autism Centre

by Affect Autism


The New Location

The new Giant Steps Autism Centre opened in August of 2023 after being a project in the making for over 5 years, Marla shares. It’s located in the Angus area of Montreal, which is in the Rosemont neighborhood–a neighborhood that’s very pro-inclusion, so they were really welcomed with open arms, Marla says and they’re no longer just a school. Giant Steps has been around for about over 40 years, but now in the new Centre they also have a Resource and Training Centre, adult education, and a research pillar as well.

I commented how it must be great to finally be in the new location. Marla says that just having air conditioning has been wonderful. Giant Steps is a private school, but they’re publicly funded by the Minister of Education in Quebec, so there is no tuition fee for parents to send their children to their school, Marla says. If you watch the YouTube video of our podcast, above, you will see the photos of the neighbourhood, with a lot of construction, and the incredible backyard with the splash pad. 

Marla says that the difference they see here in the new large outdoor space where students can run around and play is that the kids are occupied. They’re busy doing things now, whereas, in the old building there was a little bit more pacing and just being off in a corner. Now, Marla continues, there’s so much more for them to do and explore, so it’s really lovely to see them outside in the playground. 

There’s a garden and different music instruments, including a xylophone, chimes, drums, and all sorts of things they can play with. There’s stairs that lead up to a slide and various climbing structures, swings, and areas where they can go. Marla says that the photos don’t show it, but on the back fence there are sensory walls all along there and a communication board. In addition there’s an outdoor classroom area with a blackboard and logs to sit on. 


A Tour of the Centre

Next, Marla showed us one of the 15 classrooms, of which 11 are open right now. They’re opening the 12th next year. The other 3 classrooms are currently used for overflow. There’s a nice reading nook that’s in the wall in the very back, and large windows that bring in natural lighting. The building doesn’t have any fluorescent lighting because it can be often challenging for autistic individuals. All the cabinetry is built-in, so they can reduce a lot of visual stimuli, as well, Marla says.

Next, Marla showed us another example of a classroom from a different angle. Each classroom has a communication device, kind of like a newer version of a PA system, so they can communicate with departments, or floors, or specific people, and each department also has a smart board. Next we saw the art classroom that all the students in the art pillar attend. Then Marla shared the incredible sensory gym, which is the large occupational therapy room, or the gross motor room. They have another room that’s somewhat similar to this, but on a much smaller scale for kids who may get a little bit overwhelmed by the size of the gross motor room. 

The school has in-house occupational therapy and speech-language therapy. Marla says that they really want to recognize the whole student, not just academics. They have a computer class, a social skills class, art class, and a gym class. They’re really looking at the whole person and making sure that they’re supporting the individual so that they’re ready to go once they move into adulthood. 

Next, we saw a picture of music therapy which is about your relationship to music as there’s a lot of sequencing and patterning in music which leads to the basis of math skills. Music therapy also touches on our emotions and emotional regulation, Marla explains.

Next, Marla shows us the computer lab, not only learning how to use a computer but also about their relationship to technology, including teaching them how to navigate the internet and keep themselves safe. They’re also looking at finding different programming to support students in their IEP goals. They have academic  objectives, but they’re also looking at what they’re interested in and how they can explore that through technology to help them blossom in their interest, Marla explains.

Next, on the main floor they have a kitchen that the school uses to learn cooking skills, which helps with learning math skills right with all the fractions and measuring everything, language arts by reading a recipe, and life skills activities as well. The photo Marla shared is of their industrial kitchen, used in the adult pillar for adults over 21 and replicates a kitchen you would see in a restaurant. 

The Centre has several partnerships with different restaurants and their hope is that their adults will learn the skill sets and then hopefully go off and do internships, then get jobs in different kitchens, based on the skills that they’ve managed to learn at Giant Steps.

For instance, they have a partnership with the chicken restaurant chain St-Hubert. In the beginning, Marla explains, it was more about the client experience in the restaurant, so through the Resource and Training Centre, they were really helping and supporting them, making sure that the restaurants are welcoming and are inclusive to all individuals, so that they can go to a restaurant. They went through and did an audit of the restaurants and suggested perhaps the music needs to be a little bit lower. Maybe the lighting needs to be a little bit stronger or softer here and have more natural lighting there, etc. 

Marla’s team helped them support customers with sensory bags and communication boards so the restaurant can lend them out to people coming to the restaurant. St-Hubert also had sensory-friendly periods on Sundays. They also provided training for the management staff and created online videos they can use for their personnel to learn a little bit more about autism and how they can support autistic individuals in the restaurant. Now they’re working with St-Hubert on hiring autistic individuals. Marla says they have been really on board with all of the steps.

Giant Steps also has a grocery store in the school. Giant Steps did work with the city of Laval who had named themselves the first city in Canada to be inclusive and they’ve been doing a lot of work with the city of Montreal. Giant Steps is very open to working with anyone who wants to become more inclusive. Marla says that in the beginning of her career in the resource centre, it was more about just sensitizing people to autism, but now it’s much more than that; it’s making sure that they are fully inclusive and a lot of organizations are coming forward with this.

Marla shared the photo of the Center’s mini Maxi which would be known in other provinces as Loblaws. Giant Steps has been working with them for a very long time helping autistic adults learn the skill sets to work at the grocery store, whether it’s managing the stocking of the items or working in the back warehouse. Giant Steps actually has a functioning cash register so they can learn how to do the whole cash process right at the Centre. 

Across Canada, Loblaws has hired just over 200 autistic individuals, so that’s a huge success. And that’s with regular pay and regular benefits, which is what they’re really pushing organizations to do, because they’re able to do the work. 

I commented that I hear Marla saying that she’s noticed this trend from having to really educate people on how to make sure that they’re accepting of autistic people to really embracing inclusion. Marla says that yes, it’s what’s happened.

Next, we see a picture of the new gym facility which is also an event room. In 40 years, Giant Steps has never had a gym, so Marla says that they’re very excited about the gym and that it was kind of the big reason for building the new Centre, and so they can use the gym for events as well. It has all the facilities so that they can hold banquets. They have tables and chairs and there’s a kitchen nearby, so if someone wanted to cater an event, they could do that as well, Marla says.

At the beginning, there were a lot of inaugural events and the premier of Quebec came to do a big celebration of the new Centre. They also had a couple of conferences and some people from the outside have rented out the room for parties and events as well, Marla shares. For the students, they have a gym teacher who is actually able to help and support them in their physical education.

Next, we see the Resource and Training Centre, which we talked about in the first podcast, Marla’s mandate is to help and support organizations, and individual businesses on the outside of Giant Steps. They have a lending library with lots of different books and teaching materials, so anyone from a school to a parent can come and borrow any items or they can come just to search for ideas if they need help and support creating visuals or social stories or anything like that, Marla explains.


The Resource and Training Centre

The Resource and Training Centre also offers workshops, conferences, and trainings and invites the public to attend, or a group can contact Marla directly and ask for a training for their group. They also offer consultations so that if a school that has tried to help support a child and they just need a little bit more help, Marla will go in and observe and help their team find strategies to better help support that child in that environment.

They can do this consultation outside of Quebec as well as they want to spread their knowledge and help in any way they can. The other big part of the Resource and Training Centre is to help different organizations. They have a partnership with the Montreal Canadians NHL (National Hockey League) team in the Bell Centre in Montreal exploring ways in which they can become more inclusive. Marla’s team has helped them create communication boards and sensory bags that they can loan out during games.

They’ve trained all of the heads of the department so they can help their workers understand autism and how they can support autistic individuals who come to the game. As an exchange, the Canadiens hockey team has given them tickets for some of their families to go and watch a game on International Autism Day this year, and they actually provided a skate day where students could go and skate on on the ice with the mascot, Youppi!, so that was fun.

They do a project with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport where families go through the whole process of flying to learn about what areas their child or the autistic individual may have a harder time dealing with, so they can be better prepared for the actual travel date. Another great project that they are really proud of is working with the police force and the new police chief for Montreal that is a 5-week immersion program where he requires all of his new recruits to do this program before they actually start working on the streets. 

The police recruits go into a whole bunch of different organizations to learn about all sorts of differences about vulnerable people so they can be better skilled and knowledgeable about how to support all sorts of differences in the community. Most of their recruits come and spend a day at Giant Steps to learn about autism. Marla has heard nothing but great things from their recruits. They say they’re really well empowered that they had these tools and strategies that they could use to help and support the person. 


Reception to the New Centre

I asked Marla how the reception has been since they opened. It’s a process, Marla says. They have had a lot of media so that many people have learned about who they are, so it’s been very busy. Of course, they have a ways to go and they still need to educate people and they still need to get out there and help with support, Marla says.


Adult Education Pillar

In terms of the adult pillar, Marla says they did have classrooms for the past few years at another center and now they’re at Giant Steps, which is a department that’s growing, so they’re still figuring that out. The adult pillar is through a partnership with the English School Board in Montreal, and it’s really education-based. They teach work skills, but it really is an adult education department and is offered in both French and English, and in Quebec, when you’re an adult, you don’t have to belong to a certain school board to go to the Centre.


The Research Centre

The Research Centre is focused on how to do research that will improve the quality of education and life for the students and is mainly through McGill, called TACC (Transforming Autism Care Consortium) that has many different researchers so they can apply if they are interested in doing research with Giant Steps, and then there’s a team that will read their file and decide if it’s accepted or not. Marla said that they do accept researchers from all the major universities within Montreal so if they want to do research that will help their staff in their ability to help and support the students, they can apply.


Adjustment of the Students

I asked what it was like for the students moving from their old school to the new Centre? Marla said there were lots of social stories, lots of calendars to count down, and their neighbour next door allowed them to put a live camera on their balcony, so they had live feeds where they could actually watch the building as it was being built. Then, in the summertime they had several days where the building was open, so families could actually come and visit with their child just to get a feel for it. 

Marla said they also always recommended to the families to drive by, go for a walk in the neighborhood to show the kids that this was going to be their new school. The students really didn’t have any difficulty making the switch over to this new building, Marla said, and after all, it’s tailored for them.


Input from Autistic Self-Advocates

Giant Steps also had input from autistic self-advocates as much as possible to always include the autistic voice in anything they do, including any training, any workshop, or project. Marla has given several tours of the new Centre and several with autistic individuals and they all love it.


Floortime at Giant Steps

Giant Steps school uses a developmental approach, taking input from different approaches, and one of those approaches is DIRFloortime. We were fortunate to have Richard Pare, an educator at the school who has training in Floortime and he shared how Floortime is incorporated at Giant Steps.

Richard is doing a pilot project with one class, picking 5 students and seeing how they can implement Floortime into the school environment. He does one-on-one sessions for 45-minute periods once each week with each student, working with the behaviour success team. It’s part of the prevention approach. They figure out what’s going on, taking the DIR philosophy to try to figure out what the student is experiencing and if there is some sort of difficulty.

They contact the parents and have a specific protocol on how to assess where they’re at, asking about what’s going on at home and if there’s certain things that can be causing them to be having a hard time at school. Richard develops a relationship, sharing and communicating everything that he’s learned with the team.

Richard aims to bring the Floortime perspective by using the children’s interests in the classroom and in his sessions. Beginning with the team and with the families, he wants to meet them where they are at, developmentally, and get on the floor with them to play, developing that relationship, and scaffolding from there.

Richard has learned the value of reflective practice and videotaping sessions, so he tries to do that as much as possible because they’re lucky enough to get the permission from families to share it with the school and their classroom team, as well as with all the staff members of Giant Steps for professional development so he can do workshops on Floortime, talking about what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and why they should be doing it in the classroom.


Floortime Sessions

Richard says that the students love the area near the window, so he has a big mat to play on. He has toys and items to make an obstacle course to give the kids movement, taking into account their individual differences and what they might be needing in that moment from a sensory perspective. They also play in the hallway because there’s a couple of things students love to do in the hallway where they have seats and areas for the students to relax.

With one student, Richard continues, he had that gleam in his eye as they began to play. Richard went on the floor with him and imitated him and the child seemed to feel that Richard understood him. He was running and jumping then sliding on his knees to get that proprioceptive feedback. He would look back at Richard and Richard started getting that back-and-forth as the student was looking at him and laughing. He took Richard’s hand and brought him to do the same, which was just incredible to have that moment with him, Richard shared.

I told Richard that he made the student feel comfortable enough where he was comfortable initiating, which is what we see once the circles of communication get flowing. They start their initiation, and then you can start to work into the fourth Functional Emotional Developmental Capacity.

Richard continues that they go in the hallways, in the schoolyard, and in different environments that really set the children up for success. He shows us the sensory bin with fun toys and talks about how he will get lots of fun back-and-forth around these toys, such as when they fall, which creates a problem. They’ll look and sometimes it falls underneath the tables and then they have to wonder where they went. 

Richard says that they will have fun closing the blinds to make the room darker with the light-up today and he’ll put in a little bit of a playful obstruction by taking out the batteries and wonder what they’re going to do together. And of course, he says, that they have sensory play, including balloons. Different children will communicate in different ways wanting him to blow up the balloons for them. Some will bring it to him, and another signs to him. 


Implementing Floortime

Richard also tries to implement AAC as much as possible. One student has an iPad. At Giant Steps they use TD Snap and have been able to get donations and grants to give iPads to students and teach how to use it in the classrooms. They’ve seen really great outcomes from this, as it’s so important to be able to communicate, Richard says. And for the younger children, they’re not teaching or expecting them to use the AAC yet, but they are just modeling it to have them get used to it.

Looking and reflecting, as well as communicating and sharing with the school, Richard’s been figuring out the best way to implement Floortime in the school environment as working one-on-one is tricky. They’re trying to think outside the box to have it in the school system, such as thinking about how they’re interacting and setting up the environment, and how to include families.

Richard says that a big learning experience for him is really thinking about what we’re saying that we’re doing, including how to present ourselves. The self-reflection helps him think about how he’s feeling and if he’s able to attune to the students rather than thinking about all of the responsibilities and everything else he forgot to do. If you’re in your head, Richard says, you’re not in the moment with the students.

Richard is really enjoying the constant progression and the new centre which is meeting a lot of the students’ needs. It’s a lot more spacious. The gymnasium is incredible so when it’s very cold in Montreal, it doesn’t mean just staying in the classroom anymore. They can have fun and run around in the gym to get that energy our. Then, the students are more prepared to learn in the classroom afterwards.

Thank you to Marla and Richard for sharing the story of this incredible new centre and how they do Floortime with us. We hope you found it interesting and will consider sharing this post on social media.

Until next time, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!

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