Legault attends opening of Giant Steps’ new Interdisciplinary Autism Centre

Quebec may use the centre as a model for a network of autism treatment facilities

Since its founding in 1980, the Giant Steps School for autism has had several homes, including its first which was in Westmount, followed in more recent years by a second and larger abode on a quiet side street in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grâce neighbourhood.

Quebec Premier François Legault is seen here on Sept. 14 with other members of his cabinet as well as officials and supporters of Giant Steps School during the opening of the new Interdisciplinary Autism Centre on Molson Street near the Angus Yards in Montreal’s east end. (Photo: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

A Canadian first

Now after decades of confinement in spaces that never quite matched the demand for Giant Steps’ services, the school has finally opened its new Interdisciplinary Autism Centre on Molson Street near the former Angus Yards in Montreal’s east end.

The $54 million project, completed with public and private money, is considered a first in Canada.

It officially opened on Sept. 14, with Quebec Premier François Legault heading up a list of dignitaries that also included Education Minister Bernard Drainville, as well as Chantal Rouleau, Minister Responsible for Social Solidarity and Community Action in the Legault cabinet.

Model for the future

The presence of the Coalition Avenir Québec government officials may have been an affirmation of earlier rumors that Quebec wants to eventually use the Giant Steps Interdisciplinary Autism Centre as the prototype for a provincially-supported network of autism treatment centres.

Premier François Legault and Education Minister Bernard Drainville (third and second from right respectively) listen intently to explanations of the new centre’s facilities. (Photo: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

“I think one of the reasons they funded this project is that they kind of want to establish a model for autism services that could be used elsewhere in the province and in the regions as well,” Thomas Henderson, director if innovation and special projects at Giants Steps School, acknowledged in an interview with Newsfirst Multimedia.

Breaking new ground

The Giant Steps facility is a bilingual state-of-the-art centre built to meet the needs of autistic individuals for their whole lives – which is considered a step forward, as autism education and treatment traditionally has ended with the onset of adulthood.

Research currently suggests that one in 50 Canadian children aged one to 17 is on the autism spectrum. Construction of the 66,500 square foot centre was completed quickly (beginning in December 2021) thanks partly to an $18.7 million subsidy from Quebec, and $1.7 million in private donations.

However, while most other fundraising goals have now been achieved, Giant Steps is still seeking contributions from the federal government and from private donors.

Meeting their needs

The state-of-the-art building was erected in the heart of the Technopôle Angus district in Rosemont. The centre was designed to meet the specific sensory and perceptual needs of autistic people, particularly in terms of the organization of spaces, the choice of materials and the type of lighting.

Giant Steps School’s new Interdisciplinary Autism Centre on Molson Street near the Angus Yards in Montreal’s east end. (Photo: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

Former Giant Steps governing board president Nick Katalifos (who is now vice-president) said the seeds for the project were sown around a decade ago. “We were talking about it for a long time,” he said.

“We knew that a centre like this was needed in Quebec – not just in the greater Montreal area. So, we talked about it and around five, six years ago we held a big consultation process with the autism community and we came up with this vision.”

Centre’s four pillars

The new Interdisciplinary Autism Centre’s “four pillars” of development for those who will be attending because they are on the autism spectrum focus on adult education, employment, community services and research.

One of the centre’s more progressive and forward-looking premises is that autistic adults have the potential and strong desire to become active members of the workforce and contribute to the economic prosperity and the development of a more inclusive society.

While a critical labour shortage continues to hold back the province’s economic recovery, Giant Steps supporters maintain that a surprising majority of adults with autism (approximately 86 per cent), are unemployed or underemployed.

From the left, Quebec Premier François Legault, as well as cabinet ministers Chantal Rouleau and Bernard Drainville, share their thoughts with Giants Steps School officials during a tour of the new Interdisciplinary Autism Centre which took them through the kitchen area. (Photo: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

Leading to the future

They say that employers who have hired autistic individuals report above average overall job performance, less absenteeism, higher levels of accuracy in their tasks and many other positive qualities. They also maintain that there are other positive impacts on company culture, on the pride of other employees, on the company’s image and even on customer loyalty.

Having already helped many autistic adults find employment with Québec companies, Giant Steps is determined to continue in this direction. Giant Steps believes that by helping people with autism build on their strengths and characteristics, sharing their knowledge, and by partnering with businesses and organizations, they will create a more inclusive society and new opportunities that will benefit everyone.