A SensaBus to make a difference to kids with autism

Photo courtesy of Trish Mandewo

Trish Mandewo oozes sheer bliss when she recalls a conversation on her Facebook Messenger. A couple of years ago, the owner of the Vancouver Tumblebus got a message from the mother of an autistic girl. 

Mama, look at the Tumblebus,” Mandewo says of what she’s told by the mom.

Over the years, the tender six-year-old could hardly say a word. “Tumblebus,” where her parents hosted a party for her, was one of the first few words she picked up.

Stories like that have touched Mandewo’s heart. According to her, Tumblebus, which is supposed to be a mobile gym for all kids, is particularly popular among autistic children.

“What happened is that many kids that have autism were coming to the bus,” says Mandewo.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, Mandewo was lucky to have attended school, where girls were assumed to end up as wives or prostitutes. Mandewo has been proving them wrong. As an RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant of 2017, she transformed her business, the Tumblebus into the non-profit SensaBus Society of B.C., which will be Canada’s first mobile sensory room for kids with autism. SensaBus will be in operation in September.

A prickly journey

Trish Mandewo, founder of SensaBus | Photo courtesy of Trish Mandewo

Mandewo feels for the parents of autistic children.

“That can be taken back to the first year when we were in operation, a mom [of an autistic boy] wanted to host a birthday party for her son, but she said to me, they were booking it not for their child because their child wasn’t going to participate,” says Mandewo.

Left with mixed emotions, Mandewo, however, promised to fully refund the family if the boy wasn’t entertained.

“I told the mom to her face, ‘You know what, I guarantee you that your child is going to participate. Or I will give you a full refund,’” says Mandewo.

The parent laughed and said to her, “You are going to regret what you are saying.”

On the day of the birthday, the boy was sitting on the bench inside the bus, emotionless. As the minutes ticked away, the parents saw little hope for getting him involved.

“He wasn’t doing anything. The mom said, ‘We told you.’ I said, ‘No, give him time, give him time,’” says Mandewo.

Then all of a sudden, the boy stood up, his gaze fixed on a swing, and asked his mother, “Can you push me on that?”

“This particular story is very, very critical to me. Kids [with autism] were just finding a safe place on the bus. I think to myself, ‘Really, that’s something we can do,” says Mandewo.

So she started collecting thoughts from parents of autistic children. The idea of SensaBus was therefore conceived.

“Parents of kids with autism are so stressed out. So we invited those who we had been working with and asked them, ‘How can we help you?’ They were saying, ‘You know, we wish that the bus would have more sensory equipment.’”

11,000 vs. 1

According to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, over 11,000 children and youth in British Columbia have been identified with autism. Just south of the border, in the U.S., one in 68 children has autism, according to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control.

However, a sensory room, which helps autistic children calm down and develop skills with interventionists in the room, is a luxury in North America.

“When it comes to physical literacy, none of the gymnasiums do any special training for kids with autism, because it’s not a money maker. Instead it costs a lot of money. Then you go to the non-profits that are out there, nothing is done for physical changes,” says Mandewo. “In the Vancouver area or even in B.C., [a] sensory room is just a room with some balls for kids to punch to get their energy out. There’s no real sensory room.”

Lack of access gets kids with autism “oversensitized,” says Mandewo.

“What they do is [punch] the wall. Some of them scream or begin hitting another child,” she says. “There’s still a long way to go.”

For more information, please visit www.sensabus.com.