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Autism 3 - Autism -Friendly Places (b) Autism Friendly Cities - Why and How, Sensory Rooms, Sensory Gardens and More


Not every Autistic child will be drawn to animals the way my son was.  I had the feeling that he trusted them more than humans. They were never judgemental and didn't tease or bully anyone.

Autism Friendly Cities

Since I started writing this, I’ve come across several Autism-friendly cities. They include Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Glasgow in the UK and Phoenix, Mesa and Austin in the USA. Mesa has 60 businesses and attractions on board including many outdoor activities and also subscribes to the Sunflower Program (see below). Others are working on it - Visalia, and Palm Springs in California, High Point in Carolina, Toledo in Ohio and also Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Malta is also Autism – friendly.

The Autism -friendly Club doesn’t have lot of entries yet, but covers restaurants, hotels, stores and holiday parks etc in Spain, the USA and Argentina.

Why it matters 

To find out why Inclusion is important read the Latrobe Community Health Centre's report: "Good Access is Good for Business" by clicking on this link  Improving accessibility and inclusivity of people with disability in a community and mainstream setting. In short, we are talking about large numbers of people who live with a disability of some kind but whose disability is not readily discernible. This means that they are very unlikely to get the help and support they need in ordinary settings which others wouldn't think twice about. 
With Autism being the most common form of hidden disability, many individuals and their families or carers may be excluded from a range of experiences. In Australia we are looking at an estimated 1.2 million people, compared to say, less than 200,000 who use wheelchairs or 350,000 if their carers are included.

 As the intro to the Report says,

“Changing the layout of your shop floor, introducing sensory-friendly hours or experiences, or updating your business information so people with disability know whether participation is a real option – these aren’t ground-breaking solutions, and there are actions all of us can take to be more inclusive and accessible.”


The first thing we need to do according to Amaze which is the Victorian organisation for Autism in Australia, is to understand how the environment affects autistic people. How they may have difficulties in noisy or crowded situations, how they may take longer to process instructions or information, or dislike sudden changes of schedule.

Being able to respond to an incident

The Amaze website  has excellent tips on how to help in specific situations. Take for example, the child having a meltdown at the supermarket. Don't be judgemental or express disapproval and don’t even intervene unless their parent or carer approves as it may add to their stress. Rather, try to make space for the person and remove the trigger such as noise or bright lights or even smells. You can also try to find them a quiet place where they can calm down. Read more here

 Change your reactions is a short interesting series of videos from Amaze which say much the same thing in visual form. YouTube has some excellent videos on all aspects of Autism too. If you click on one Purple Ella  clip (see below)for example, many more will show up in the side bar - some by experts and some by Autistic people themselves.   

Advance Preparation

Another easy fix is to provide accessibility information both at the site and beforehand - for example colour photographs, maps, and supportive text on site and 'social stories' on websites, so that patrons know what to expect. More advanced options include having 'sensory days' or quiet hours, having specially trained staff, and or sensory kits and rooms both of which are explained more fully below.

The Sunflower Program

I haven't seen much of this in Australia yet, but I understand major institutions in Sydney such as Museums have adopted the international Sunflower program which lets others know that the wearer has a hidden disability and may need more help, more time or a little more understanding in places like shops, airports, on public transport or in public places. Staff or others with training usually wear a button or lanyard which tells users that they are available to listen and support them.  Click here for the link for Australia or the link above for other countries. 

 How to get a whole Community Involved

Do One Thing for Autism is another Amaze initiative which calls on individuals to make a commitment to do ONE thing which will be helpful to Autistic people.  This is the way the village of Rhinebeck in New York (see previous post) started its Autism - friendly community. It brought together organisations such as the Chamber of Commerce, business owners and ordinary citizens, had guest speakers -either experts in the field or people from the ASD community or both, explain what Autism is and what the difficulties were and then asked the audience to commit to doing one thing for Autism. After becoming informed, many pledged much more. 

This snowball effect occurred in Mesa, Arizona too. When Marc Garcia, who started the ball rolling there, took his autistic son on a holiday in 2018, he was shocked at how unaware people in the hospitality industry were and also discovered that 87% of ASD families never took a holiday at all. He then set about getting training and accreditation for the entire tourist bureau, after which the whole town got behind the idea. Perhaps this is also something other tourist bureaux should consider.

Though people on the Autism Spectrum will usually be directed to the professional services they need by doctors, teachers, community services and the like, informal activities are very fragmented and much harder to find. For those who aren't directly involved but want to become more Autism -friendly, it's even harder, so  I will give some examples of things which are happening, followed by some additional links. 

As I was searching with three different search engines, I kept thinking that there should be a central register and a more coordinated approach, when lo and behold, I came across Autism Awareness Australia which seems to be fulfilling that role in Australia. Unfortunately, it was also the last place I found. There is also a worldwide version listed below which will at least direct you towards similar organisations in other countries. Even though  though their purposes may vary, it's a good place to start.

Sensory Rooms and Sensory Play

Perth’s Rocky Bay Centre not only provides professional help with speech therapy, physiotherapy and  social programs, but also has four sensory rooms in various locations where autistic and neurodivergent children and adults can find relaxation or stimulation according to their needs.

What’s a sensory room you ask? If someone is overwhelmed, a separate space  – it doesn’t have to be an actual room, with calming features such as soft lighting, sound dampening, white noise or soft music like rain falling - anything which drowns out distressing stimuli – even smells, will help to relieve anxiety and prevent overload and meltdown. It may also contain stress relieving objects such as fidget spinners and stress balls. Cushions or tactile fabrics may bring comfort to some users. Sensory rooms aren’t just for autistic people and there is no reason you can’t set one up at home or in the garden either. Read more about this and more in this great blog by an autistic person here.

Little Land Sensory Sessions are about role play in a child -sized world for children Aged 1 -8. There’s a market, a doctor’s surgery, a coffee shop and more. These sessions with specially trained staff are held from time to time and attendance is limited to 15 visitors.

Sensory Lane in Melbourne has all kinds of experiences to stimulate the imagination and encourage play including a waterbed, a bubble tube and padded floors. Read the "social stories" here.

 Sensory Gardens

Sensory Gardens where children can see, smell and touch the plants or play with water and natural elements are also catching on. The one at Terilbah Reserve on the New South Wales Central Coast is accessible to all.

The Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens just on the edge of the CBD have a Sensory Garden and a Program for various age groups which either includes planting herbs or playing with natural materials, pattern making and so on.

The Sydney Royal Botanic Garden website has instructions for making your own Sensory Garden

Sam’s Playground in Perth’s Northern suburbs features nature – based play and sensory play for younger children. It is also part of a larger park which has a range of activities for all ages.

Livvi’s Place in Five Dock, was Sydney's first All -Ability playground. Since then, thanks to children's charity, Touched by Olivia there are now over 40 in NSW with others planned for other states.

Let’s not forget Boundless, Canberra’s new All Ability playground  either. It includes a Sensory Garden with music and water play and very quiet places such as a swivel chair away from the crowd where you can look out on bushland and watch animals and birds

Saratoga, New York State has a Sensory Gym.

Sport and Recreation

Research has shown that generally speaking, people on the Autism Spectrum have less physical exercise than their peers which can affect their health and wellbeing. There are several organisations working towards inclusion of Autistic people in sport. See for example  Sport Inclusion Australia or the A list. Victoria's Access All Abilities Play has learn to swim classes with specialist coaches at many locations, as well as bike riding, intro to martial arts, gymnastics and other sports such as tennis. 

Swimming is especially important for Autistic children. According to US statistics they are 160 times more likely to drown than other children Some are simply drawn to water. Others, like my son, are simply impulsive with little regard for their own safety. In a country like Australia where drowning is already a leading cause of child mortality and  many people have pools or live near the water, learning to swim is even more important.

 Brisbane’s Hampton Swim School has a program which caters especially for ASD children.

South Australia has holiday Aqua Skills classes for 3 -8-year-olds which not only encourage physical activity but also ensures safety around the water.

In Western Australia,  children on the Autism Spectrum can try Golf or Cricket and even join an Autistic Cricket Team

Kardinia Park in Geelong, Victoria, is a specially designed Autism - friendly stadium. It has a marvellous time out area  you can view in virtual reality, social notes so you can plan a visit and trained staff. ASD patrons can borrow lap blankets or a sensory kit which contains items such as ear defenders, a map and fidget toys. For more on what a sensory kit might contain and what the lap blankets do, see the Purple Ella Video on this topic here.

For Online Training for Leisure Centres click here

For tips and courses about becoming an Inclusive Club click here.

Connecting with Nature

National Parks often have special days too. See for example the Nearer to Nature Programs in Perth or other suggestions here.

Letchworth State Park in New York has an Autism Nature Trail with eight stations for various gentle sensory experiences including a design area where children can make things out of sticks and found objects. This Trail has been designed by Temple Grandin well known for her work with horses and who is autistic herself. See more here

Mesa, Arizona the first Autism -friendly city in the USA, has various outdoor adventures including Low Stakes Camping and fishing and Geo Tours.

Animal Encounters

Recent research suggests that being around animals can be beneficial for people on the Autism spectrum. Click here's for a BBC clip about how Alpacas are helping Autistic children in an English school.

Perth Zoo has "social stories." Melbourne Zoo has a sensory map which shows the areas which are likely to be crowded or noisy or quiet and social stories. Sydney’s Taronga Zoo has early entry with meet and greets for visitors with special needs.

In New York State, the Aquarium of Niagara offers Au -Some sensory -friendly evenings and New York’s Animal Adventure Park offers Low Sensory Nights with fewer people. 

Eden Farm Wellness at Numurka in Victoria, has a sensory room and a sensory trail and visits can include dance, exercise, farm work, bushwalking and healthy eating. It has morning, after school and holiday programs.

Myuna Farm in Melbourne’s South East has pony rides and train rides and allows lamb patting and so on and has been greatly praised by parents of autistic children. 

Brisbane’s Equusterra  uses “horsepower” as therapy to for children with Autism, anxiety, ADHD or similar developmental problems. 

Social Activities

Socialising isn’t always easy for ASD children but the Rocky Bay Centres in Western Australia have a Building Buddies group for 8 -12-year-olds which involves  co  -operative play with Legos
Autism South Australia runs Social Spot groups in various locations to help children develop communication and social skills and to make connections. They are about building confidence and include things like strategies for conflict resolution, understanding boundaries and non-verbal communication. 

Autism South Australia also has Mealtime Groups which are available in several locations. The aim is not only to introduce children to a wide variety of foods and textures but to support social skills development. 

Livin Social in Victoria seems like a great idea. It organises small and large supported adventures for 16 -35 -year -olds. It might be simple like walking Tuesdays or a show in the city or perhaps country attractions such as the Healesville Sanctuary or Sovereign Hill, depending on what people want to do. 

The A List in NSW has Minecraft sessions and camps for 7 -12 year -olds and 13 -17 year -olds. GameAware has supported weekend online or face -to  -face programs for ASD gamers between 10 and 25.

The Autism Network offers peer support and Autism friendly activities.  

 Autism friendly Holidays

Click here for how to plan. Greece and Portugal have specialist travel centres. 

Autism -friendly Holidays in Holland and Belgium

Autism Friendly holidays in France  

Denmark’s LEGOLAND, Germany’s Euro park and Paris Disneyland all have special arrangements for autistic guests.

In the USA, Disney and many other popular Theme Parks including Dollywood are Autism - friendly. While all the Disneylands and LEGOLANDS offer some accommodation for ASD children, Florida’s LEGOLAND is entirely Autism – friendly. Read about this and many other attractions, mostly in the USA but also in other places including the Caribbean here. This list has been compiled by professionals in the field and offers good general advice as well.

In 2007, the Netherlands had around 2- 300 small farms which provided short stay accommodation for autistic children to give their parents and families a break. Subsidised by the government, their numbers were still growing as was demand. Children help with farm chores and have plenty of open space to run about and make a noise or to find quiet spaces, if that’s what they prefer. 

 Additional Resources


Autism Awareness Australia seeks to improve the lives of people on the Autism Spectrum and their families. In 2011 it was recognised as an NGO partner by the UN. One advantage with this group is that families can share their experiences too, such as what worked for them. What to do about schools and so on.

The Australian Autism Alliance  Advocates on behalf of the autistic community in Australia and seeks to improve social and employment outcomes for them and their families.

Amaze  As well as services and support for autistic people, it also provides training for individuals, workplaces and organisations to become more Autism – friendly.

USA AND CANADA:  Autism Awareness Centre- Basic link to organisations by region including USA, UK, Europe and Global including India, Ghana, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Singapore, Philippines and more (Another last minute find - original Website had an error message).

UK: National Autistic Society  Helps 700,000 autistic people and their families in the UK, runs specialist schools, provides consultation, training and accreditation and as well campaigning for the rights of autistic people.

EU:  Autism Europe is mainly concerned about the rights aspects of people with autism, particularly with respect to access to education and employment.

This list is getting longer by the minute - certainly long enough to give you plenty of ideas, so I'll stop there for today. Next time we'll have a BRIEF look at what's happening with Work, Education and Technology.