Sarah Russell: “CAN is home to me.”

by Sarah Russell, CAN participant & staff

I think I always knew that I was different.

For so many years, I carried around this feeling of inadequacy without really knowing why.

When I found out about my autism diagnosis as an adult, it was the most validating information that I could have ever heard.

I was finally able to let go of the weight I’d been carrying and the pressure I’d been putting on myself my whole life. What I used to think of as inadequacies were actually just different ways of experiencing the world.

My name is Sarah Russell. Since 2015, I’ve been working with Canucks Autism Network (CAN) as a Support Worker, Coach, Onsite Supervisor, and Learning Facilitator. And in 2021, I learned of my diagnosis and joined as a Participant.

I began supporting CAN participants before knowing I was on the spectrum. Even then, I always knew that I could be myself at CAN programs.

My involvement with CAN first started when I was working through a partnered program in Victoria called PISE. PISE was looking to accommodate beyond physical disabilities and CAN was looking to expand on the Island.

I kind of fell into the role of CAN Coach, and once I started, I was hooked. I just loved helping participants develop their sports skills so they could ultimately access community programs or school programs or just keep up with their neurotypical peers on the playground.

Since starting at CAN, I’ve held various roles and find them all equally rewarding in their own way.

As a CAN Support Worker, it’s so fun to get to run around with the kids and get big silly reactions out of them, while also being the person who can help them integrate into new situations. I know how hard that can be because I struggled with it my whole life.

For so long, I felt like I had to hide my feelings and authentic experience just to fit in. Autistic people call this masking. When masking, you’re trying to present yourself in a typical way while suppressing your real feelings and experience. It’s upsetting, overwhelming, and uncomfortable.

For so many years, I was supporting CAN participants without knowing that I, myself, was on the autism spectrum. One of the most liberating things about becoming a CAN participant was knowing that I could leave my mask at the door.

I knew from my experience as CAN Staff that I’d be in a safe space where I could just be my authentic Autistic self.

Even when I’m having a hard day, I know I’m going to be supported. I know I’m going to feel heard. And I know I am going to be welcomed as I am.

Being Autistic, you’re already in a marginalized group. Those who identify as female are marginalized even further. So for me, having an opportunity at CAN like the Women’s Peer Support Group is so important because it creates a safe space for us to feel heard and included. We get to come together monthly to share our similar experiences while supporting and validating each other.

When you’re a person on the spectrum who has low support needs, it actually limits the number of resources that you’re able to access in the community.

CAN is really the only organization that I’m able to access.

If it weren’t for CAN, I wouldn’t be able to go the gym or be a part of social activities like bowling or rock climbing because the facilities are too loud and overstimulating. The experience itself wouldn’t even be enjoyable because I’d be forced to push so hard just to be in that space.

Because of CAN, I’m able to access community activities, be physically active, be social with my friends, and even make new friends.

When I think about it, my favourite thing about CAN is that it’s essentially home.

The people who work at CAN are like an extension of my family. Whether I go to a CAN program or event as a staff or a participant, I feel like I can let go of everything and just be myself.

It’s really the most comfortable and welcoming place that you could ever be.

More CAN Stories

Breaking barriers: From CAN to Chilliwack Minor Hockey

CAN removes diagnosis barrier for youth & adults to access programs

Why I Celebrate Autism Acceptance

“I want to help other kids like me.”