Making Southeast Michigan Attractions More Autism Friendly
How can we make everyday places and people more hospitable? The Autism Alliance of Michigan is teaming with The Henry Ford – and, it hopes, others – to help make this happen for kids.
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A trip to the Henry Ford Museum or Greenfield Village in Dearborn can be a long day for anyone, but for families affected by autism, it can be downright daunting.
That's why the local historical destination has partnered with the Autism Alliance of Michigan to launch a unique program designed to accommodate families with special needs.
The effort, which blends intense safety training for staff and online trip-planning resources for parents, officially kicks off during Autism Awareness Month with a Special Day Out with Thomas at Greenfield Village.
A new movement
According to Colleen Allen, president and CEO of AAoM, The Henry Ford is on the forefront of a national movement that has public places aiming to become more autism-friendly.
As autism rates continue to skyrocket – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it now affects one in 88 children – integration efforts are spreading far beyond schools and workplaces and into the hospitality and entertainment world.
Movie theaters, zoos, amusement parks and museums are increasingly tailoring their offerings and educating their employees to better serve the autistic community. The idea is to give the general public tools and understanding they need to help children (and adults) function better in shared spaces.
Allen says The Henry Ford is the first venue of its kind to sign on to AAoM's Michigan Autism Safety Training (MAST) program, but she hopes many others follow. Her organization is in talks with the Detroit Zoo and Lansing's Potter Park Zoo, and hopes to expand the program to airports, stores, restaurants and entertainment venues throughout the state and beyond.
"Yes, it's about safety," Allen says, "but it's really about making our community a better place for families of children with autism."
While every individual on the spectrum is unique, children with autism may be sensitive to overstimulation or physical contact, averse to loud noises and unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings. They may have special dietary interventions or need to carry enabling devices in places where technology like smartphones normally is not allowed.
They also are prone to wander, which puts them in danger of getting separated from the caregivers who know them best – and exposes them to traffic, drowning or other hazards.
An untrained bystander can inadvertently escalate a situation by chasing the child, touching him or speaking too loudly using words he may not comprehend.
The MAST program began as an effort to educate police officers, firefighters and EMTs to recognize the signs of autism and respond appropriately. The trainings then branched out to educators, bus drivers and families.
Scott Schuelke, a retired sergeant for the Lansing state police department and autism safety specialist for AAoM, estimates the organization has trained 5,000 people throughout the state through more than 75 workshops so far.
The training was developed in conjunction with autism expert Dennis Debbaudt of Florida-based Debbaudt Legacy Productions and is endorsed by the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and approved by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards.
The training for staff at public attractions is very similar to the protocol for law enforcement, as these employees often become first responders to scenes of concern.
Schuelke led the first training session at The Henry Ford in March of 2013, just in time for the opening of Greenfield Village on April 15.
"Basically, with the numbers of people they have going through there each day, having some training in autism for the staff not only makes their job easier, but it makes families feel more comfortable," he says.