What Does Autism-Friendly Mean?

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The term autism-friendly has become increasingly popular. From movie venues to concerts, retail stores, museum tours, and even cruises, the term seems to be everywhere. Autism-friendliness, however, is a bit difficult to define—and different institutions define it in slightly different ways. While not all people with autism need or want "autism-friendly" options, for many they can be the best (and sometimes only) way to engage in typical community experiences.

Defining Autism-Friendliness

Because people with autism are so different from one another, it can be tough to design any experience or venue to be "autism-friendly" across the board. That said, however, most autism-friendly experiences are designed to accommodate specific challenges that are shared by most people on the spectrum.

It's important to note that none of these challenges are exclusive to autism; as a result, autism-friendly settings may be helpful to people with a range of differences and diagnoses. For example, many people without autism are sensitive to loud noise or bright lights—or find large crowds overwhelming.

The most common autism-friendly accommodations relate to these issues:

Sensory Challenges

The current criteria for autism spectrum disorder include: Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g. apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement). In other words, the majority of people with autism are either under- or over-sensitive to sensory input of one sort or another.

Autism-friendly experiences generally reduce volume level, overlapping sounds (announcements being made over music for example), very bright and/or flashing lights, strong smells, and potentially challenging tactile experiences. They may also permit more physical movement (the option of walking around during a movie, for example).

In rare situations, entire rooms or buildings are created specifically for people with sensory challenges. Such spaces may offer calming colors, lights, and sound and/or provide sensory experiences such as slowly moving lights, beanbag chairs, mini-trampolines, etc.

Communication Challenges

Virtually every individual on the autism spectrum has speech and/or communication challenges at one level or another. While some autistic people are non-verbal, others are highly verbal but may have trouble following rapid or complex speech. Most have difficulty processing vocal intonations or body language that are intended to suggest sarcasm or humor.

To accommodate communication challenges, autism-friendly events and venues may use a variety of techniques. For example:

  • Working with smaller groups to customize the level, speed, and type of communication and to provide one-to-one support as needed.
  • Using both written signage and spoken language to communicate.
  • Simplifying language and/or sentences to make communication easier.
  • Checking in frequently to be sure spoken language is well understood.
  • Using picture boards and/or digital tablets to communicate with those who are not able to use spoken language.
  • Avoiding nuanced body language and vocal tones.

Preference for Routine and Predictability

Most autistic people prefer to know what to expect—and many prefer consistent routines. Some can become very upset when an expected experienced is changed without notice. That doesn't mean autistic people can't handle change, but most do far better when they have time to prepare for something new.

To help people with autism who are coming to a new venue or experience, therefore, it's important to provide opportunities to prepare in advance. It's also important to explain what's expected, address potential concerns, and provide as much consistency as possible.

For example, autism-friendly experiences and venues might:

  • Provide previews in the form of videos and/or social stories.
  • Provide clear written and spoken information about what to expect before getting started.
  • Be sure to have familiar people, foods, etc. available as possible.
  • Be consistent from venue to venue or from event to event, so that autistic participants know exactly what to expect before they arrive.

Anxious Parents

Most parents of children (and even adults) on the autism spectrum are worried about the reception their child will receive in the wider community. Will people stare? Will their child have a melt-down in a public place? Will there be unexpected loud noises or flashing lights?

All of these concerns, and many others, may be an obstacle to participation. Autism-friendly experiences are, in many cases, judgment-free settings where families with autistic members can come and enjoy typical experiences without fear of stares or criticism.

Examples of Autism-Friendly Experiences

Over time, an increasing number of organizations have chosen to become autism-friendly and/or offer autism-friendly experiences. The term autism-friendly is not used in the same way across the board, however; as a result, it's important to ask for details before saying "yes" to a specific experience or venue.

It's also important to note that there are actually very few settings that are set up to accommodate people with autism across the board, 100% of the time. Most of these are institutional rather than community settings (or private homes). "Autism Friendly" venues are thus places where accommodations are made available some of the time, or only in specific locations.

Autism-Friendly Events and Scheduled Hours

Many organizations offer autism-friendly happenings or provide autism-friendly accommodations during certain hours of the day, week, or year. Just a few examples include:

  • Scheduled autism-friendly hours at retail stores, museums, movie theaters, and other community venues. During certain times of the day, week, month, or year lights are turned down, sounds are muted, and behavioral rules may be relaxed to allow for walking and talking when quiet is usually expected.
  • Scheduled autism-friendly events at venues (especially child-oriented venues), especially during autism awareness month (April) or around the winter holidays. These range from entire days dedicated to welcoming people with autism and their families (Autism Day at the Zoo, for example) to autism-friendly visits with Santa to autism-friendly events at restaurants.

Ongoing Autism-Friendly Programs and Services

Ongoing autism-friendly programs are hard to find outside of special needs organizations such as Easter Seals and Challenger Club. Often, "autism-friendly" programs are lumped in with other "special needs" which may or may not be appropriate for a particular individual with autism. For example, organizations like the Y may offer special needs swim classes or other programs.

In addition, however, some organizations do provide regular autism-friendly programs. These are usually offered by non-profits and may include ongoing autism-specific accommodations and programs in museums, zoos, aquariums, Scout groups, religious institutions, etc.

In some places, it's possible to find autism-friendly services ranging from dentistry to hair styling. Other services include travel consulting, custom tailoring for tactile sensitivities, and much more. Very often these are offered by people who happen to have autistic family members and have thus learned what it takes to be accessible and accommodating to people on the spectrum and their families.

Pros and Cons

Are autism-friendly options a good thing? The answer, as always when it comes to autism is—it depends. Here are some of pros and cons to consider; autism-friendly events:

Pros

  • Essentially guarantee a friendly reception for families with autistic members.
  • May make it possible for an autistic individual to experience something that would otherwise be inaccessible.
  • Simplify planning and implementation of outings for families with autistic members.
  • Allow parents to plan whole-family outings rather than separating siblings from their autistic brothers and sisters.
  • Can provide a "gateway" to typical experiences by introducing autistic individuals to places and activities without having to cope with sensory assaults or difficult expectations.
  • Can (when they are ongoing) be a source of friendships among people with autism and their family members.

Cons

  • May provide too few, too many, or the wrong accommodations for any given person on the autism spectrum.
  • May establish reliance on "special" programs, making it difficult to transition to typical community programs or venues.
  • May be significantly more expensive than typical community programs and events.
  • May be offered very rarely, at a distance, or at inconvenient times (autism-only hours are often very early in the morning or after public hours).

How to Decide What Is Right for You

To decide whether an autism-friendly experience is right for yourself, your child, or your family, ask these questions of the organization that's providing the event:

  • What special accommodations are you providing for people on the autism spectrum? (The accommodations may or may not be appropriate for or enough for your particular child's needs.)
  • Will my autistic child's siblings (if any) also be welcome?
  • Can parents be part of the event or program? If not, what kind of staffing is available (at least two staff people should be available)?
  • What kind of training does your staff have? (Depending on your child's needs you may prefer that staff have specific training in autism inclusion.)
  • How long does this event or program run? (If you plan to stay through an entire movie, for example, how long is the movie? Will your child be able to stay through the whole thing? If not, is it OK to leave in the middle?)
  • What can we expect when we arrive? (The activities may or may not be of interest to your autistic child, or they may be too simple or too complex.)
  • Do you have preview materials that we can share with our child? (Preparation is key for many people on the spectrum.)
  • What is the cost per person or family?
  • Does this event occur regularly or is it a one-time happening?
  • What happens if my child really enjoys the experience? How can we follow up?

Deciding Whether to Attend a Program or Venue

Follow these tips to make a decision about a particular event:

  • Some autistic individuals are high functioning enough—or capable enough in a particular setting—to simply join a typical program with or without support. For example, an artistically talented person with autism can usually participate in a typical art class with appropriate support, while a "special needs" art class may not help him achieve to his potential.
  • Some autistic individuals have so little ability to understand or respond to spoken language that certain experiences (even when they are "autism-friendly") may not be appropriate. If your child won't understand and/or enjoy the experience, it's probably best to choose something else.
  • Every person, autistic or not, has their own preferences and interests. If your child says he or she isn't interested, chances are they—and you—will have a negative experience. As with any child, you'll want to support your autistic child's particular strengths and interests while accommodating special needs.

How to Find Autism-Friendly Events Near You

In most cases, you can find local autism-friendly events and venues quite easily. Don't be shy about asking around; you may be surprised at the number and variety of options available in your area. Check these sources:

  • Ask friends with children on the autism spectrum where they've been and what worked well for them.
  • Ask your child's therapists and teachers for recommendations.
  • Call institutions that are of special interest to you and/or your child—churches, zoos, museums, etc., and ask what kind of special needs and autism-specific programs are available.
  • Visit institutions of interest to find out whether you really need an autism-specific experience for your child. Audit classes and programs and chat with coaches, instructors, directors, etc.
  • Use Google to search for specific programs of interest (Autism-Friendly Santa Ann Arbor MI, for example).
  • You can also tap into autism-focused databases such as the Autism Speaks listings.
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