Supporting communities  |  11 Feb 2021

Eight-year-old Jonty Smolenski feels, hears and sees things in a different way.

Jonty has a very rare genetic disorder – Trichothiodystrophy – that causes multiple, challenging physical problems and affects his ability to recover from any illness.

For Jonty, the Christchurch City Council’s Southern Centre at the Pioneer Recreation and Sport Centre has become a haven – an opportunity to explore a unique space independently and revel in the sights and sounds within a safe, interactive environment.

The centre’s technology helps stimulate senses and can be adapted to meet individual needs.

Aquatic Sensory Experience

Plans are under way for a new high-tech sensory centre at the Council’s Metro Sports Facility.

The Aquatic Sensory Experience will offer innovative stimulation options to support well-being and development for all ages and abilities.

Council Head of Recreation, Sports and Events Nigel Cox says the positive community feedback to both the Southern Centre and the Aquatic Sensory Experience has been overwhelming.

“These special sensory facilities activate the imagination, stimulating activity and helping to realise the potential of people with a range of abilities to be more resourceful and independent,” he says.

In 2019-20, it welcomed 7537 people – most with disabilities.

Jonty’s parents, Sam and Maree Smolenski, say their son is “never without a smile when exploring all the bits and bobs” at the centre.

“Jonty plays with everything, and his confidence levels continue to climb as he becomes more comfortable in a very special sensory environment,” they say.

His teacher, Gail Sharman, says it has been an “amazing experience” taking Jonty to the Southern Centre.

“Initially, he was a little overwhelmed and very tentative about exploring the environment,” Ms Sharman says. “He would only explore a small area, with an adult by his side.

“Now he is exploring the whole environment independently.

“The transformation has been incredible and awe-inspiring. The increased confidence, physical ability and joy that the multi-sensory room has brought Jonty is fantastic.”

Jonty – who is one of only two known cases in New Zealand – faces a range of challenges.

“His hearing and visual sensors are, in some ways, mechanical,” his parents explain.

“Jonty has had the lenses removed from both his eyes, laser surgery, and synthetic lenses put in, along with grommets and a cochlear implant for his ears.

“He would have very limited ability without that intervention.

“He requires a great deal of support, and his older brother, Lachlan, and younger sister Ruby also help cater for his extra needs, so time out at the Southern Centre is also very important.

“The centre helps Jonty learn and process, providing that vital extra stimulation in an amazing and easily accessible environment for those with very unique needs.”

The Southern Centre is open Monday to Sunday, with bookings required. It mostly benefits those with learning differences, cerebral palsy, autism, multiple disabilities and anxiety.

* The Southern Centre Charitable Trust promotes the benefits of multi-sensory spaces, particularly for people with disabilities. It raises funds for specialist equipment, enabling more people to gain life-enhancing experiences through multi-sensory environments.