Did you know that last week Britain’s second busiest airport became the first airport to be ‘autism friendly’?
Where you aware that last weekend the international toy retailer Toys “R” Us held an autism-friendly event throughout the UK?
It seems the whole concept of being autism friendly has taken wings and grown and it is now common place to hear of autism-friendly cinema screenings, autism-friendly museums and libraries, autism-friendly times in trampoline parks and soft plays, and even autism friendly Santa’s grottos!
A quick glance online and I even found autism-friendly cruises!
But what is this autism-friendly stuff all about and is it just a marketing gimmick?
According to Wikipedia Autism friendly means “being aware of social engagement and environmental factors affecting people on the autism spectrum with modifications to communication methods and physical space to better suit individual’s unique and special needs.”
In practice for most places this means what the retailer Asda advertised recently as a ‘quiet hour’ where all unnecessary noise is reduced to avoid too much sensory stimuli. Autism-friendly cinema showings for example have dimmed lights rather than complete darkness and a more relaxed atmosphere.
However there is much more to this than just turning the tannoy down! The National Autistic Society now has an award for being autism friendly but to get this prestigious award retailers and towns or businesses must do much more than just reducing noise or creating a more relaxed atmosphere. Criteria for their award includes having autism-friendly customer information, having staff and volunteers who have an understanding of autism, making the physical environment more autism friendly, having the customer experience autism friendly and promoting understanding of autism. For anyone to go to that level is far more than just a marketing gimmick; it is costly, time consuming and takes a lot of motivation.
So why do it? And why single out autism?
What if I told you there are around 700,000 people in the UK living with autism - that’s more than one in 100? If you include their families, autism touches the lives of 2.8 million people every day. Seventy-nine percent of autistic people and 70 percent of families said they felt socially isolated. Fifty percent of autistic people and families sometimes don’t go out because of concern about people’s reaction to their autism. Autism-friendly events have a potential to attract a huge market for businesses and towns as well as showing tolerance and understanding that reaches many more besides.
What about other disabilities?
This is the beauty of autism friendly. Autism is a huge spectrum involving difficulties to varying degrees with communication, social interaction and social imagination. Some will have learning difficulties or mental health struggles. Autism-friendly events are there for everyone regardless of diagnosis or difficulty. They are as accessible to the Down syndrome community or those with genetic disorders. They are accessible to those with physical difficulties or challenging behaviour. No one will be asked for diagnosis or membership to access any autism-friendly event of any kind and therefore what is helpful for those with autism is as open and accepting for anyone facing any difficulty. We are all in this together.
So why do I care? I recently took my son with severe autism shopping with me. He made noises, flapped his hands, laughed loudly and generally had a wonderful time watching a lift door open and close again. He can not speak. He has the mental understanding of a baby despite being eight years old. He is still in nappies. As the lift door opened a stranger looked at my son in disgust and said “I have come here to do my shopping, not see the likes of THAT!” I cried. It took me a long time to feel I could ever take him out again. I am not alone.
When Victoria Holdsworth approached Toys “R” Us in 2014 to ask if they would consider doing an autism event to help her son Joe she had no idea how much the entire autism-friendly concept would take off. We owe her so much.
Now there are entire towns looking to become autism friendly. Liverpool has a huge campaign and councillor Mandy Garford from Dartford has a determination to make Dartford autism friendly too.
This is much more than a gimmick. This is an entire movement expanding across the UK that says to autism parents like me ‘we see you and we care.’
Do you care too? Please help by sharing this blog, supporting autism awareness and thinking about how YOUR town, business or place of work could also be autism friendly too.
Maybe one day less people will then call my son a ‘that.’
Being autism friendly is much more than a gimmick. It is a monumental change that makes the world much more accepting to children like mine.