Raising a child with autism is at the same time my greatest source of stress, and my greatest source of joy. Of course there are the stresses of dealing with Ben’s behaviors on a daily basis, such as: his meltdowns, sleepless nights, his OCD, his lack of danger awareness, and his difficulty communicating. However, what stresses me the most is not Ben’s behavior, but society’s reaction to it. It stresses me when people give me “that look” when Ben is having a meltdown in public or when he is stimming (such as hand flapping or spinning) at a restaurant or other public place. I dream of a world where people are not only aware of autism, but also accepting of it. I dream of an autism-friendly world, which would look something like this…
Autism-Friendly Hotels: I was once told by hotel management that if we didn’t keep the noise down, we would be asked to leave the hotel. The noise he was referring to was Ben’s stimming: loud vocalizations and jumping. These behaviors, although disruptive, are necessary for his sensory integration. The picture above was taken at Canada’s first autism friendly hotel, located in Port Aux Basques, NL. It provides a space for children on the spectrum to meet their sensory needs. It also has a specific room for individuals with ASD and their families. Nothing in the suite is movable or can be thrown should a guest become distressed. In an autism friendly world, all hotels would have such a room, and would be more tolerant of autistic behaviors such as stimming.
Autism-Friendly Movie Theatres: A friend of mine was once asked to leave a movie theatre because her son’s vocal stimming was disturbing to the other movie goers. Some movie theaters offer mommy and baby matinees where crying is okay. I would urge all movie theaters to offer this service and to extend it to children with autism and other special needs so that not only noise, but movement is also acceptable.
Autism-Friendly Airports: It can be difficult traveling alone when you have a child with autism, as Ben’s dad once learned when he disappeared at Heathrow Airport! Wouldn’t it be great if airport personnel provided assistance to families who are traveling with a person with ASD, in the same way that they support people with physical disabilities. This would include escorts from gate to gate and access to the special lines which reduce wait times.
Autism-Friendly Stores: When Ben was younger, it was very difficult for him to wait in line, especially at grocery stores while he was anticipating his treat! When I took my kids to Disney World, we got a special pass which allowed not only Ben, but his whole entourage (mom and siblings) to go to the front of the line for all rides and attractions. How nice would it be if kids with autism got a special pass to go to the front of the line at shopping centers. Hey, if Disney can do it, then why not Walmart?
Autism-Friendly Restaurants: Imagine a world in which restaurants designated a table, away from the main traffic area, with a sign that says “Autism Friendly Table.” Then if the child was having a meltdown because for example, his chicken nuggets were touching his fries, people would know at a glance that the child has autism, and is not just “being a brat” as is too often assumed.
Autism-Friendly Hair Salons: Many children with autism resist getting their hair cut, which can cause quite a scene at hair salons. Wouldn’t it be great if hair salons offered a private room, with dim lights and soft music to help soothe the senses of people with ASD, while preserving their dignity?
Autism-Friendly Parades: I am happy to say, that in my home town of Burin, Newfoundland, last year’s Christmas parade was autism-friendly! There was a stretch of the parade which was quiet, no sirens or loud music, for people on the spectrum who are sensitive to loud noises. In an autism-friendly world, all towns and cities would adopt this practice.
Autism-Friendly People: In an ideal world, not only would businesses be more accommodating to people with autism, but so too would people. However, that can only happen if we raise understanding and acceptance of the disorder. The time for awareness has passed. People are aware that autism exists, yet many still react in a very negative way to autistic behaviors such as stimming and meltdowns. Tolerance. Understanding. Empathy. That is what an autism friendly world would look like!