Autism 2 - Making Places Autism -Friendly (a) Shops, Museums and Theatres
I was very surprised the last time I visited K -Mart, our big variety store – like Walmart in the USA. It’s huge and usually very bright and noisy. This time half the lights were out and it was very quiet. There was no music and there weren’t the usual announcements about specials and not letting your children climb on the trolleys. I wondered if they were closing down and jokingly asked if someone had died or if they were just saving electricity – yes, the prices have all gone up here too, but “No,” said the young assistant, “This is our quiet time. This is for autistic children and others who can’t stand a lot of noise, crowds and bright lights.” That presumably includes children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), anxious or traumatised children and those with epilepsy as well.
I immediately thought how great that would have been when my son was young. Not that he would run amok. Rather he would completely shut down and withdraw into himself. The second thing that struck me was how far society had come to be acknowledging children like this and what a large market segment it must be to have big stores trying to accommodate them and their long -suffering parents or carers. Since then I have come across similar initiatives which could be implemented elsewhere. This list is by no means comprehensive, but merely to illustrate ways in which small changes can make places more suitable for people with diverse needs.
Before I go on, be aware that not all Autistic people are
the same and may respond very differently to what is on offer. Know your child
and the things which will trigger an unfavourable response and avoid those
where possible. For a great overview about the challenges which Autistic people
face read the excellent article by public health professional, Emma Lennon. Many of the ideas here have been gleaned from her pages. I am also indebted to Bing Chat which I have used for the first time and which alerted me to many useful references.
Shops, Entertainment and Public Places
The City of Perth in Western Australia has no less than 30 places which are specifically geared to neurodivergent and autistic people as part of its four -year plan to make facilities accessible to everyone. See more here.
New York (both the city and the state) is another place which has gone all out to cater for people with different needs. This is in recognition of the fact that Autism is now the fastest growing developmental disorder among young children – an estimated one in 4 children in the USA. I’ll start off with some of the Australian ones and then mention a few things which are happening elsewhere. See more here. The UK is also quite forward thinking in this regard. So far English-speaking countries seem to be leading the charge as part of a general movement towards not just awareness of Autism, but acceptance.
Shopping and other Services
As far as businesses go, in addition to its K- Mart, Perth also has a hairdresser who caters for all abilities including ASD children who often dislike being touched. Watch it here. There's an Autism -friendly hairdresser in Sheffield UK, too. Watch the clip to see why it matters.
New York State
Dutchess County in New York State was the first Autism – supportive region in the USA and has banks, community services, churches, accommodation, libraries, events and recreation facilities which all provide extra help for people with Autism. The historic village of Rhinebeck alone has some 40 attractions, shops, eateries and places to stay with specially trained staff. Even the Police, schools and the Hospital are involved. Find out how to create an Autism supportive community here..
Unsurprisingly, Dutchess County is also home to the Anderson Centre for Autism which
provides training, consulting services and information exchange to groups and
individuals around the world.
For tips on how to make your business more Autism- friendly contact your nearest Autism Society or check out the guidelines on the UK’s National Autism Society’s Pages here.
Museums, Galleries and Theatres
Museums have been amongst the early adopters when it comes to catering for diverse needs, including those of Autistic people. The Museum of Western Australia has sensory backpacks which can be borrowed free of charge, to help soothe children who may find it overwhelming. They contain things like ear protection, fidget spinners, written information – usually called “social pages” so that children can find out what to expect or what they want to see beforehand.
The Australian Museum in Sydney does this too, as does the Melbourne Museum. Adelaide’s South Australian Museum has been specially designed to ensure a positive experience for ASD children. It has trained staff, all kinds of sensory -friendly programs and early opening to avoid crowds in addition to the backpacks.
Scienceworks in Melbourne usually has Autism – friendly sleepovers which include a visit to the Planetarium, but these are on hold due to site works until 2024. In addition to the social stories, it provides a Sensory Friendly Map which shows the areas of high and low activity and where there are quiet places to rest. Click here for an example of a Sensory Friendly Map.
The Art Gallery of Western Australia has Quiet Tuesdays, but these do require booking
Wonderworks in New York’s Destiny Shopping and Entertainment Centre has sensory days when the volume is turned down and some attractions are turned off.
Explore and More at the Ralph C. Wilson Jr Children’s Museum in Buffalo offers individually tailored experiences which include a music centre, therapy dogs, art projects and calming areas and “quiet kits.” It also hosts Au -some Evenings where families and children can play together.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA) offers tactile experiences and art projects and also provides preparation through virtual tours which enable all age groups and their carers to see which areas will be most suitable for them, Museum rules and what to expect.
The Finger Lake Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) has Sensory Days every third Saturday of the month. Lights are dimmed and compressors are turned off, times are extended and audiences are smaller. As with other museums it has site maps and social stories to enable participants to plan their visit beforehand and know what to expect. It also supports autistic children with science activities at home.
The Strong National Museum of Play has Sensory -Friendly Sundays four times a year which include quiet areas with sensory friendly toys, craft tables and quiet activities.
Stage and Screen
Here’s what a Relaxed Performance looks like courtesy of the UK’s National Autism Society
His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth offers tactile sessions where children can handle the costumes and props, but booking is required.
Monkey Baa Theatre in the heart of Sydney offers Relaxed Performances which are modified for children with
sensory or learning difficulties. The lights are left on, the doors remain open
and there is a chill -out area in the foyer. Tactile tours are also available
before a show starts.
Melbourne’s Circus Nexus has Autism – friendly classes on
Fridays. This may seem an odd choice, but juggling helped my son with balance
and co -ordination (not with this group), plus it’s great fun. Who doesn’t want
to be a circus star?
New York offerings include special performances on Broadway, where lights are dimmed, sound volumes are lower and there are break areas.
Sensory – friendly performances are also available at the Syracuse Stage (New York State) and the Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts has monthly days with autism -friendly performances with special light and sound features and specially trained staff. It also has goodie bags rather like those at the Perth Museum which can be borrowed. Their maps show which areas are likely to be highly stimulating and crowded, dark, noisy or quiet.
Before the pandemic at least two Cinemas in Perth and several Hoyts and Village Cinemas throughout Australia were offering sensory sessions, but some cinemas are still closed including our local one, so best to ask about this first. Adelaide’s Event Cinema in Marion, has sensory screenings with modified sound and light for ASD children.
According to the UK’s National Autism Society 300 cinemas around the country now offer Autism - friendly performances and have attracted 300,000 visitors. See more here. Dimensions, the support organisation for children and adults with Autism which runs this site, also offers free training for cinemas.
To be Continued .....
Next: Sensory -friendly Cities, Play, Animals, Sports