Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.
As a disability advocate and writer, I often see headlines of movie theaters, shopping centers, stores, and other public places offering "autism friendly" services. I wondered, what does this phrase mean? What does the creation of this type of environment entail?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability characterized by social and other deficits. People with ASD may be overwhelmed by bright lights, loud environments, and long lineups.
An Example of Autism Certification
Sesame Place, a children's theme park near Philadelphia, became the first theme park in the world to receive autism certification in 2018.
This status involved:
- All staff receive initial and ongoing training in how to work with families and their special needs children
- Two quiet rooms designed specifically for people with autism
- A sensory guide to the park that informs parents about features of each attraction that may trigger sensory overload
The certification was provided by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. They provide sensitivity training for employees in contact with autistic individuals and has a certification process for public places such as malls, amusement parks, and hospitality and travel venues.
There are numerous organizations and consultants available in most countries who provide information and support for those wanting to learn more about the spectrum.
How to make Venues More Autism Friendly
According to the website Autism Friendly Spaces, a comfortable environment for autistic people involves:
- Staff or participants who understand the differences in autistic people and can meet their needs
- An environment that is accepting of social and sensory differences, and behaviors such as stimming (repetitive movements) and vocalization
- A venue with tolerable levels of sensory stimuli such as noise and smells
- Visual aids such as signs with pictures, sensory guides, or checklists
- Past successful use of the place by people with autism
Here are some of the elements that make people with autism more comfortable in public environments.
Consider the age level for whom the service is offered
Many stores, restaurants, and companies focus their efforts on the needs of autistic children. They advertise "quiet hours" and special events that are targeted to parents of kids with autism. Adults have autism, too, and their needs should also be considered. Promotional material should indicate whether the event is intended only for children.
Adjust the environment
Bright fluorescent lighting may bother autistic people. Soft or lower light levels will make them feel more comfortable. Colors on the walls should be muted colors such as a soft pastel pink or taupe. Shopping areas should be relatively clutter-free. It is helpful to have an environment that is consistent and predictable, preferably with some open spaces.
People on the spectrum are also sensitive to smells such as heavy perfumes or fresh paint. Cleaning supplies with strong odors should not be near the area. Shops and companies should have a low to no scent policy.
Signs with clear pictures related to the location can help neurodiverse people to navigate large areas such as stores. It is also helpful to offer them a map that indicates the various sections and grade them as quiet, high intensity, or low intensity and show the exits. A shopping checklist is also helpful.
Accommodate their needs
Autistic individuals may have special requests. For example, in a restaurant, people with autism may want to sit in a quieter area. They may want their food served in a certain way, such as the servings not touching each other, being in separate plates, or asking for replacement items. Visual aids such as a kids' menu with pictures of meals offered are also helpful. Venues should be wheelchair accessible and open to all.
Create quiet areas
Excess noise can bother people with autism such as crowds, loud music or ringing phones. Some stores set "quiet hours" to accommodate them with lower-level or no music. These outlets strive to keep loud noises such as clanging shopping carts at a minimum.
People with autism may feel more comfortable interacting with technology than dealing with face to face contact. Types of technology may be self-checkout stations in stores or the use of apps or online shopping to order food or items.
Provide sensory-friendly "quiet" rooms
Some places set aside rooms that are designed to allow children with autism can take a timeout. These rooms do not have the bright colors kid's spaces usually have. Instead, wall colors are more pastel such as a soft pink or taupe. The environment should have solid muted colors instead of patterns. The contents of the room should be uncluttered and easy to navigate.
Autistic people are acutely sensitive to smells in the environment. The furniture and other items should be hypoallergenic.
Limit the number of attendees, if possible
People on the spectrum may become anxious in crowded places. Organizers of events can issue tickets to limit the number of attendees or require an RSVP.
Train staff and volunteers about autism
Most staff should undergo autism awareness training. In a blog for the organization Rooted in Rights, writer Alaina Leary says that many autistic people feel they need to mask their condition or appear non-autistic to other people. This state can lead to exhaustion and burnout.
People on the spectrum should feel like they can be themselves. Behaviors associated with the condition such as avoiding eye contact, stimming (repetitive behaviors autistic people use to calm their anxiety and cope with stressful situations) should be accepted by personnel.
Autism friendly can mean different things in different venues. In a cinema, it means adjusting lights to comfortable levels, turning down the sound, allowing attendees to sit where they want, and not running flashy commercials or trailers before the film. In a store, sales staff should allow people on the spectrum to explore on their own while being available if autistic people have questions.
At special events, it means taking down a disco ball, keeping music at lower levels, and allowing autistic attendees to leave in the middle of a presentation if they wish to do so. Whatever the circumstances, the goal is to provide a comfortable, accessible environment that accommodates the needs of people with autism and accepts their differences.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Sesame Street park first to get autism certification, BBC News
What Does Autism Friendly Mean?, Autism Friendly Spaces
Supporting Individuals With Autism in the Workplace, Saint Joseph's University
The Joy of Being Autistic in Spaces Built By and For Autistic People, Rooted in Rights, Alaina Leary
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Carola Finch
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on May 20, 2019:
Thanks for your comment. I did not list autism-related organizations because there are too many to list on an international website (I am in Canada, myself). Some of the references listed at the bottom of the article are a good place to start. My work involves gathering the latest headlines on autism and other disabilities every day. I looked at a lot of articles about venues claiming to be autism friendly over several weeks to put together a definition of this topic as well as using my knowledge and research. Other than the articles I mention in the reference section, there is very little out there on this topic.
Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on May 19, 2019:
There are, perhaps, many authoritative articles on this subject. Listing societies and foundations with knowledge and services for autism is helpful. I passed this along to my son who is a board certified clinical neuro psychologist in West Des Moines because I felt your article might be helpful for others seeking to understand this disorder.
Lorna Lamon on May 19, 2019:
Excellent article with lots of valid and thought provoking points regarding this important topic. It is so important to have an understanding of Autism and an awareness of how those who have this condition are affected. Thank you for sharing.