All-Abilities Playground Offers Kids With Autism A Safe Place To Play

Aussie parents of children with a disability have praised a play centre for including their needs, after years of being excluded from traditional playgrounds.

They say the Sydney-based centre is setting a great example for welcoming all abilities, but Australia has a long way to go to improve inclusivity.

The first time Sam Thompson walked out of The Shine Shed with her daughter Brianna she cried 'happy tears'. 

Brianna is almost 17 and has a rare metabolic disorder called Congenital Disorders of Glycosylation (CDG). Her age and diagnosis make it’s “near impossible” to find a safe place to play with other kids. 

“She can’t go to normal playgrounds,” Thompson told 10 daily. 

Brianna with her mother Sam Thompson at The Shine Shed. Image: 10 daily

The family travels one hour to The Shine Shed in Campbelltown, in Sydney's west, so Brianna can do what she loves -- in her own time. 

No one looked at her differently, I didn’t feel like I had to justify anything, or explain anything. We could just come and we could just be.

The Shine Shed is an ‘all-abilities’ play centre and sensory gym that is designed for children and young adults with a disability, including autism.

It’s believed to be the first and only centre of its kind in Australia. In the last year, it has become a safe haven and a meeting place for hundreds of families -- like the Klaasens. 

Image: 10 daily
'They Can Be Themselves'

Linda Klaasen can’t count the number of times she has brought along her three sons, all who have autism. 

For eight-year-old Jayden, a visit to The Shine Shed is much calmer than the park, which he describes as “crazy”.

“Everyone is yelling. It’s kind of hard for me,” Jayden told 10 daily.

This [The Shine Shed] is the perfect place for me.

For Klassen, seeing her sons happy is all that matters. But it hasn’t been easy. Over the years, she said she started to “put a wall up” being out in public, as certain environments terrified her kids.

Linda Klaasen with her sons Jayden and Tyler. Image: Emma Brancatisano
Image: 10 daily

“It’s really nice to come here where they feel welcomed and accepted, and they can be themselves,” she said.

The centre is a “passion project” for Lisa Fruhstuck, a speech pathologist with experience in early childhood intervention, who opened its doors 12 months ago. 

Fruhstuck told 10daily she was surprised a play centre that catered for children and young adults with special needs didn’t already exist in Australia.  

Lisa Fruhstruck opened The Shine Shed 12 months ago. Image: Emma Brancatisano

“I have seen a lot of families go through the stresses involved and felt many of them were socially isolated,” she said. 

I wanted to create a space that families could come to and enjoy time with their children, that also had a therapeutic benefit.
An Anxiety Release

The play centre is fitted out with specifically designed equipment, including a deep foam pit, swings and trampolines, along with a quiet sensory room and a fully-accessible changeroom for those in wheelchairs. 

Fruhstuck said the equipment encourages movements that help to regulate sensory processing disorder – a common feature of autism when the nervous system has difficulty detecting, processing and responding to the sensory environment around it.

The Shine Shed is an all-abilities play centre in Sydney's west that caters for children and young adults with a disability. Image: Emma Brancatisano

Klassen agrees, saying the centre has helped her boys release their stress and anxiety.

“Because they have autism, their brains have to work harder every day, even to process information,” she said.

“When they come here, it’s an opportunity to release that stress and meet their sensory needs.” 

Brothers Jayden and Tyler Klaasen love coming to The Shine Shed. Image: Emma Brancatisano

The centre welcomes children and young adults of all ages, with or without a disability, but limits intake to 25 at a time. 

“It’s safe, and there’s not too many people here at one time,” said Stephen Glover, whose son Patrick has autism. 

"Normally when I’m coming down, I’ll phone up first. The staff know me. I’ll ask, “how many people are there?’ Enough for Patrick?’ And they know."

The Shine Shed offers a safe place to play for all abilities, like Patrick.  Image: 10 daily

Many parents and carers who spoke to 10daily agreed the level of support from The Shine Shed staff and therapists, along with other families, is unprecedented. 

Mum-of-three Belinda O’Connell-Milner visits the centre every couple of weeks, which she uses to navigate her daughter Shelby’s goals with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). 

Shelby has Cornelia de Lange syndrome (CdLS), a rare genetic disorder that is apparent at birth. It typically includes delays in physical development and is characterised by head and facial abnormalities. 

Here, O’Connell-Milner has found a level of inclusion "that isn't anywhere else".

“There are no abilities or disabilities here; it’s just everyone being well supported,” she told 10daily. 

Belinda O’Connell-Milner's daughter Shelby has Cornelia de Lange syndrome (CdLS Image: 10daily
'A Long Way To Go'

O’Connell-Milner thinks Australia has “a long way to go” when it comes to improving accessibility and inclusion for people with a disability. 

According to the latest data from the Australia Human Rights Commission (AHRC), more than four million people across the country are living with a disability. That’s one in five Aussies. 

The HRC said businesses can often “intentionally” overlook the needs of people with a disability, making it difficult to access goods and services. 

O’Connell-Milner said services, like those offered at The Shine Shed, should be available everywhere and that any new public buildings should consider special needs across all ages.  

They’re in our society; they shouldn’t have to be shuffled away to the side in places that are specifically built.

“They should be in our in our communities everyday, accepted and supported.” 

Image: 10daily

Fruhstuck agreed and said she dreams of seeing Shine Sheds across the country. 

She said she has already received interest overseas and is working to develop similar equipment to be used in schools and homes. 

“There are just not enough places like this,” she said. 

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