What does it mean to be Autism Friendly?
Autism-friendly practice can be defined as:
“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 an individual’s unique support needs.”
In short, it means being open to making changes to empower an autistic person to participate in society. It also means you are recognising the fact that the autistic person has already had to make a lot of adjustments in order to deal with the world around them, and you are open and willing to make the necessary adjustments to include autistic people.
One of the first points of action is conducting a sensory audit. For instance, through our partnership with SuperValu, we saw autism-friendly shopping times introduced. A big part of this process was ensuring periods where lights were dimmed and music wasn’t played in store. In situations where the environment can’t be managed to this extent, like a smaller shop which is accessible through a crowded shopping centre, there are other options. Vodafone Ireland, in consultation with AsIAm developed sensory kits which included visors, stress toys and headphones for autistic customers to if they become overwhelmed by the sensory environment.
For more wide-scale projects, the emerging field of autism-friendly architecture, pioneered by Dr. Magda Mostafa, has now allowed autism-friendly environments to be built from the ground up. By carefully adjusting a space’s acoustics, Mostafa’s designs allow the sensory environment to be tailor-made to autistic needs.
While this type of accommodation is still in its infancy the recent COVID-19 pandemic has led to autism-friendly architecture being considered more seriously, as it prioritises open spaces which would make social distancing easier.
Training and Awareness
In order for society to fully include autistic people, it is necessary to mainstream knowledge of the condition. A Garda may need to know how to effectively communicate with an autistic person whilst a doctor may need to understand how to effectively treat a patient who is on the autism spectrum. AsIAm’s longest-running project has been training teachers to be conscious of autistic students and their needs, and to encourage non-autistic parents and students to be more aware in order to ensure a welcoming and inclusive environment on multiple levels. Our training programme has been extended to public and private sector alike to ensure businesses and services approach autistic people with appropriate knowledge and care.
Navigating new experiences can be a great source of anxiety for autistic people of all ages. Social stories are a learning resource which allow autistic people to prepare themselves for unfamiliar situations, such as visiting the dentist or using a bus. For example see AsIAm’s social stories developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. By creating social stories, services and users can make themselves far more accessible to the autistic community. Fota Wildlife Park, in consultation with AsIAm, creating their own series of social stories to help make autistic visitors enjoy the experience as much as possible.
Where should I start?
We acknowledge that different businesses and institutions will have varying levels of funding and resources. However, we believe that sometimes even the smallest of changes can make a huge difference to the autistic community.
As an example, through our Autism Friendly Community project, AsIAm saw Clonakilty become Ireland’s first Autism Friendly Town. This meant various business and organisations in Clonakilty took various measures to ensure autistic people are comfortable and supported in their environment allowing service dogs on premises and using social stories for each and every accredited business. This may seem like a huge project, but it all started with one SuperValu outlet dimming their lights and music for an autism friendly shopping evening. Small steps can lead to bigger steps.
You should start based on where you see the greatest area of need. It can be a matter of having a quiet room for students to go if they’re overwhelmed, for example, or normalising the use of stim toys in work environments. Talk to autistic friends, family, employees or students and try to highlight key access barriers. Sometimes being autism-friendly is as simple as listening.