Op-ed by Ingrid Payne, InfiniTeach; Neurodiversity Advocate & Mom
"Success begins before you open the door" – is our family mantra. As a mom to two kids on the autism spectrum, visiting a museum, indoor adventure park or theatrical performance can be challenging and simply - not fun - when we are clueless about what we're about to walk into. My kids, like so many others who are on the autism spectrum, thrive on predictability and routine, and so new experiences can be tough. Making a plan for "family fun" before we reach our destination can make or break the quality of our visit – and determine whether or not we plan to return.
My neurodiverse family is one of millions who face the same "let's plan an outing" stressors, and our community is growing. And as temperatures plummet, we really feel the pressure to find "autism-friendly" entertainment options - aka welcoming and accessible indoor spaces - where our kids can learn, play and be themselves with the right accommodations in place. Places where an overstimulated child in the midst of a meltdown is met with a knowledgeable employee and a quiet space to regulate. Places where social expectations and rules are clearly spelled out and it's not assumed that every child intuitively understands the flow of traffic or where to stand when waiting in line. Places that have done their research and understand that some children can't process information auditorily or communicate with words, so they have informative visuals "at the ready" for non-oral learners. Unfortunately, this is a tall order when so many businesses are new to the accessibility journey and have a one-size-fits all approach to interacting with the public.
That's why I joined the InfiniTeach Team - to ease the burden on caregivers and their kids. We partner with nonprofits and family-centered businesses to help alleviate the pre-visit anxiety that caregivers and their loved ones feel when planning “family fun,” whether that be a new experience or a high-stimuli activity that involves big crowds, loud sounds, bright lights in an enclosed space. The truth is, there are a few simple things that business owners can do to send a message to families that they care. Even a little effort makes a big difference in the lives of families, like mine and doesn't require a redesign or massive budget to accommodate us. The truth is, when you "get" my kids, you get my business.
Here are a few getting started tips from our favorite disability advocates and partners on how to make small changes to build trust amongst your autistic patrons and their caregivers.
Provide pre-planning resources like social stories and visual schedules: "Families have been so appreciative that we are thinking about their children's needs and working to make our space welcoming and inviting. An accessibility app is a quick, easy tool to make those adventures out of the house more possible for all families."
- Alyssa Harsha, Field Museum
Offer supported events and sensory supports: "There's something special about coming together with other kids who have disabilities and creating a community and friendships. Because we have set routines and expectations, I've seen kids blossom when they become comfortable in our space."
- Shelley Harris, Oak Park Public Library
Educate your staff with training: "I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about autism and the challenges individuals with this disability face. This will help me understand and be more comfortable, confident and better able to help our guests."
- Shedd Aquarium Employee