Autism-Friendly Events in the Community

August 15, 2017

2 mothers and 2 children in theater

Understandably, new environments can be incredibly challenging for individuals with autism spectrum disorder — even more so if the activities are unpredictable, the settings loud and crowded, or certain formalities are expected. That’s why it has been  so encouraging to see the increasing number and variety of community opportunities giving careful consideration to the needs  of their patrons with ASD. From theaters to zoos to sports arenas to play places, many businesses have become mindful of  how they can accommodate guests with different needs. Autism New Jersey commends these organizations for learning  about autism, training their staff, and providing options that may enable individuals to participate in activities they once might  not have been able to enjoy.

Addressing Sensory Sensitivity

Some events are billed as “sensory-friendly”. Many individuals with ASD have heightened sensory sensitivities: hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment. These are perceived and demonstrated in different ways by each individual.

Hosting organizations strive to break down barriers that may prevent attendance and instead emphasize how welcome those on the spectrum are. For example, “quiet rooms” may be available if individuals periodically need to leave a performance area. Additional supports may include: lighting/volume adjustments, maps highlighting especially busy areas that could be avoided, and exclusive hours that are less crowded. One thoughtful option at the Franklin Institute is a “Try Again Rain Check” if the visit doesn’t work out within the first half hour.

Autism-Friendly Events

Other “autism-friendly” events further address the core challenges of autism and have been created with the input of self-advocates, parents, and professionals. At Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, for example, the scripts are adapted to simplify long scenes and clarify metaphors, sarcasm, and body language that viewers with ASD may not readily understand. They and some other theaters offer preparatory materials that parents or professionals can use before the performance: character guides, social stories, and indications of any jarring lights, noises, or scenes.

Training staff is a key component of the success of these events; their understanding that patrons may get up, make noise, etc. reduces the likelihood of unpleasant interactions and helps everyone feel welcome. Sensory considerations are usually included in “autism-friendly” events as well.

Considerations for Hosts – Offer Options

Something to keep in mind when hosting a community event is that individuals’ needs and preferences should be considered rather than presenting any item or strategy as something that will universally “prevent meltdowns,” “be calming,” or “desensitize.” An individual on the spectrum who is flicking his fingers, jumping, or rocking isn’t necessarily overwhelmed or upset; some are, but others exhibit these actions when they are excited or happy. One type of accommodation may be helpful for one person but not another. A range of options can be offered to address the wide variety of individuals’ needs.

For example, “fidget spinners” have been portrayed recently as stress relievers or a help to focus. If the use of one helps an individual, it’s a valid option for them; but for some, they can be a bigger distraction or a cause of overexcitement or upset. Creating a calmer environment with some fun options is a positive and welcoming feature, but be wary of presenting any details that could imply universal benefit or claim to treat the symptoms of autism.*

For More Information

Autism New Jersey sincerely thanks the growing number of businesses going the extra mile to ensure that individuals with ASD and their families know that they are welcome at a wide variety of community outings. Please call 800.4.AUTISM with any questions about how to support individuals with autism in the community.

Additionally, Autism New Jersey’s Ambassador Program offers tools and support for businesses looking to develop autism-friendly programs during April, Autism Awareness Month, and year-round. Learn more>>

*Aspects of the community events referred to in this article should not be portrayed as therapeutic but as accommodations to support participation.