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CAN family skate

by Travis Britton / Vancouver Canucks

Nick Apostolopoulos at first glance is your average eight year old boy that just loves to skate like the wind and has a mouthful of a last name.

But aside from having difficulties fitting his name on the back of a jersey, Nick also deals with autism.

It wasn’t always easy for this youngster that loves to race up and down the ice, and lives in Abbotsford where hockey is life and without it, kids are often ostracized from the group.

Autism, a neurobiological condition that, according to Autism Canada Foundation, impacts normal brain development and can leave individuals with communication problems which leads to most kids having a hard time in social settings.

This was Nick’s second skate with Canucks Autism Network (CAN) at Rogers Arena, and it was what happened in his first tour of duty, that has really impacted his life.

Last year Nick not only got to meet Manny Malhotra, the official CAN spokesperson, but he got to star in a commercial that made him the talk of his school.

“When he came to the CAN event last year he met Manny and got to go shoot a PSA in the dressing room so we had lots of photos and CAN gave him a tee shirt with all of their (players) signatures.” His mom, Claire said with a smile. “He went back with bracelets for his whole class because it was hockey day at school the next day."

"And he was really upset he would have nothing to share so when we went back I added a photo of him and Manny to the school slideshow. He got to show his show and tell to all the kids and he was just the king of the school for the day.”

“He was walking on clouds, he was so excited and his class was hanging on his every word. His teacher taped his show and tell because it’s usually pretty hard for him to stand up and do show and tell. He just had their attention, it was great for him. He’s never forgotten that, and he was a Canucks fan from then on, and that’s all he does now is watch hockey, constantly so it’s great.”

Autism is a disease that not only affects the individual; its impact reaches every family member, every teacher, every peer and every community, and that's were CAN comes in to offer a support group to those affected.

Two hundred skaters took to the ice, while 40 volunteers from CAN were on hand to help, and they were joined by Vancouver Canucks Malhotra, Dale Weise, and team mascot Fin. They didn’t quite sell-out the place but still had one hundred and fifty on hand to watch this exciting event.

Today was a great opportunity for families that have children with autism, because it is geared towards their special needs. If anybody falls down, anybody has a temper-tantrum, if anything comes up with autism everybody here is understanding and pretty laid back and relaxed about it.

In 1996 Paolo and Clara Aquilini listened in shock and disbelief as medical professionals diagnosed their son with autism. That is the real reason why Paola and Clara started the program in the first place. To give opportunities that aren’t normally available to children and families that deal with the same obstacles that the Aquilini’s have encountered.

”I think it’s natural with Canucks autism network to start with skating for our social programs,” explained Paolo. “So it’s a real opportunity to not only bring kids together to skate but to bring them together to build relationships."

"Let them foster their own sense of self confidence that they can go out and do this, and not to be judged by anybody because in this context there is no judgment, nobody has to look down and say what’s wrong with that child because that is something parents have to deal with a lot. Because a lot of kids with autism seem to be normal at first and so when they are having some sort of behavioral issue their parents go through a real difficult time having to deal with that all the time. But here, everybody has a good time.”

Compelled by the growing need in the community and driven by their own personal experience, Paolo and Clara constantly searched for ways to support families living with autism.

Clara went on to say, “We see more and more kids doing really well on their own in this year’s skate. We’ve got a WE CAN SKATE program and we get a great turnout and we can see the improvement this year from last year.”

It’s really a special experience for everyone involved including the volunteers and players because they don’t get to do this on a daily basis.

The new poster boy for this program Malhotra was in his element today skating and laughing with all the kids and their families.

“It’s always a fun day, it’s my second year doing it. It’s always enjoyable especially knowing what the CAN skate means to so many families. Just having the opportunity to bring the families out together and have a family outing which I learned last year is something that these families don’t get to do very often, so it’s always fun to be able to come out here and skate with them, have a few laughs and sign a few autographs.”

Katy Harandi, the Chair of the Board of Directors has been around since day one and is ecstatic with the way the program has grown.

“We started as a kitchen table board and now we’ve grown to an 8 member board, it’s pretty exciting!”

Harandi went on to explain how exactly you get involved if you’re a family impacted by autism.

“Families apply for membership; it’s a yearly annual membership fee of twenty five dollars. With the twenty five dollars they can access any of our sports programs, any of our social vocational programs, or family adventure programs. We also have a provincial resource library where they can access from anywhere in the province and we ship them books and resources for free and it is very accessible and all they need to do is visit our website at and they can complete an application form and become a member.”

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