Today, autism is the most commonly diagnosed and fastest growing neurodevelopment disorder in Canada. It is estimated that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed, and there are over 11,000 children and youth with autism in BC alone.
Among them is seventeen-year-old Kourosh Ershad from North Vancouver. Like any kid growing up in BC, Kourosh was a huge fan of the Vancouver Canucks, who dreamed of being part of a hockey team.
“I remember Kourosh watching the Canucks in 2011,” recalled Kourosh’s dad, Farzad. “He was mesmerized. Since then, he wanted to be involved with any type of sports in any way possible.”
However, as a child with autism, Kourosh faced a number of challenges to participate in sports and rec compared to his typically-developing peers. While there is significant variability among those who share the diagnosis, the core difficulty with individuals with autism is social communication.
“Kourosh is high-functioning, but as a boy who started talking at 7 years old, comprehension and communication were always a huge challenge for him,” Farzad explained.
Because of these difficulties, children with autism often benefit from coaches and teachers taking the time to break down and repeat their instruction.
Enrolling Kourosh in a typical sports program meant throwing him into a fast-paced environment that he was likely unprepared for. In order to enjoy the thrill of sports that he was so fascinated with, it was very clear that he needed close attention and individualized support.
It was not until the Ershads found the Canucks Autism Network (CAN) that they began to see a path for Kourosh to achieve his dream. Since 2008, CAN has successfully delivered a wide range of sports and recreation programs to children and families living with autism across BC.
The non-profit organization was founded ten years ago by Paolo and Clara Aquilini, co-owners of the Vancouver Canucks. Like Farzad, their son was diagnosed with autism and they identified a void in the community for high quality sports programs that met the unique needs of children with autism.
At CAN, Kourosh was able to receive one-to-one support from highly trained staff and dedicated volunteers in weekly soccer and ice skating programs. “It was so important that Kourosh was never alone,” Farzad explained. “He always had a CAN instructor by his side, receiving the close attention and constant communication that he needed.”
Before long, Kourosh’s abilities on the ice progressed to the point that he could become a member of CAN’s Vancouver Orcas in October 2015. The Orcas are one of two adapted hockey teams that CAN runs for children and youth with autism. In CAN’s weekly hockey program, Kourosh not only learned the basics of passing, stickhandling and shooting, he was taught the nuances of interacting with his peers and the social elements of teamwork.
Kourosh thrived. Week after week for two years, his confidence grew. “Kourosh was such a positive presence in the locker room – always laughing,” recalls Ryan Yao, CAN’s Manager of Strategic Sponsorships and former Program Coordinator. “He became a leader and someone that his teammates truly looked up to.”
In April 2017, Kourosh travelled with the Orcas to Penticton for CAN’s annual hockey tournament. Playing against other adapted teams from across BC, Kourosh scored two goals in one of the tournament games and was named MVP.
Following the tournament, Kourosh challenged his parents to make a pivotal decision. With years of experience in CAN programs at his back, he was ready to compete alongside typical peers in the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association (NVMHA).
This past September, Kourosh signed up for his local bantam team. To his family’s surprise, the new team was led by a coach that had previously worked with CAN. Kourosh’s new coach was able to work with the Ershads to ensure a smooth transition from CAN’s adapted setting to the less-supported environment of a minor hockey team.
Kourosh’s new team does not provide the one-to-one support that he originally required with CAN. But thanks to the guidance that CAN has provided to Kourosh and his family with respect to the sports and rec world, he no longer requires the same level of attention to participate.
Kourosh and his family have successfully leveraged their experience with CAN to explore additional opportunities in their community. Kourosh now has the social and athletic confidence to pursue a lifetime of physical activity and thrive. To date, he already has one goal and 11 assists with his new team in North Vancouver.
Thanks to CAN, Kourosh is living his dream and showing no signs of slowing down.
The Canucks Autism Network delivers over 400 sports and rec programs to over 3,200 members annually. For more information on joining, supporting or volunteering for the Canucks Autism Network, please visit canucksautism.ca.