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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The Henry Ford's effort doesn't stop with safety training, says AAoM operations director Stacie Rulison. It also includes environmental accommodations, like earplugs or hearing aids for the IMAX theater, as well as a public information component that will give parents tools to map out a stress-free trip to the museum and Greenfield Village.
For families affected by autism, pre-planning is key to a successful visit to any venue, and Rulison has worked out social narratives that let families know exactly what to expect each step of they way so they can accommodate their child's sensory needs.
Greenfield Village – with its large crowds and open-air streets filled with horses, antique cars and unfamiliar sights and smells – can definitely be overstimulating, Rulison says. But the museum also offers exhibits, like locomotives, that are a particular draw to some children on the spectrum.
"We have produced social narratives for all events and exhibits to allow families to plan around potential sensory concerns, time issues and areas that may be particularly engaging for their loved ones with autism," she says.
Parents will be able to link to pre-visit information and extensive photos on websites for The Henry Ford and the AAoM that not only describe environments and sensorial experiences to families, but also provide dietary options, areas for noise reduction and other hospitality services.
According to AmyLouise Barlett, director of visitor services and IMAX at The Henry Ford, it's another way the museum complex can create a meaningful experience for every visitor.
"Our approach has been to come at it from a family perspective and a hospitality perspective and a day-to-day environment, as opposed to going in real deep and designing specific exhibits or therapy. That's really not us," Bartlett says. "This will add another layer of security, and hopefully we'll show families this is a safe place to hang out and enjoy their day."
She encourages guests to call ahead if they have any questions or special requests.
"We're excited that we're sort of the first to explore how this could work, and how the training can benefit an attraction," she says.
Many parents of children with autism are welcoming The Henry Ford's efforts. For them, an outing to an amusement park or entertainment outlet is a delicate balance between exposing their children to an enriching experience and creating a situation ripe for a meltdown.
Carolyn Gammicchia of Shelby Township will never forget the time her then-young son tried to jump into the hippo tank at a zoo.
"I carried him all the way to the car with him biting me and pulling my hair out," she says. "However, we had to do these trips to get him to know expectations and learn ways to accommodate for his sensory dysfunction – while still allowing him to enjoy while he could sustain."
Local mom Jenn Lynne also struggles.
"I'm always worried that there could be a sensory overload or a moment of communication breakdown, but we try to go early, when there is less people, and lay out our expectations from the beginning," she says.
Still, she's always aware of potential pitfalls. The key is making special arrangements whenever possible, such as bringing her own popcorn to movies in order to accommodate Jane's diet, mapping out quiet places to rest during long days, or obtaining passes to bypass long lines.
It's all worth it, Donovan says.
"I really truly believe that practice makes perfect," she says. "Some things really stress her out, but she knows what's expected and has acquired better coping skills now."
Another important piece of the integration puzzle is educating the general public about autism. The AAoM's MAST partnership with The Henry Ford also includes an overview document with a high level description of autism and related facts designed for people who may not have anyone with autism in their family.
Rulison notes that individuals with autism may present loud outbursts or repetitive movements that can be misconstrued as bad behavior. Many times their symptoms are not visible at all, which can leave "neurotypical" guests wondering why other children seem to be getting preferential treatment or are jumping to the front of the line.
There are definitely some signs that anyone can watch for. The person you're interacting with might have autism, according to Debbaudt of Debbaudt Legacy Productions and Autism Risk & Safety Management, if you notice some of the following:
- May be nonverbal or have limited verbal skills
- May not respond to your commands or questions
- May repeat your words and phrases, your body language and emotional reactions
- May have difficulty expressing needs
- May display tantrums or extreme distress for no apparent reason
- May laugh, giggle or ignore your presence
- May be extremely sensitive to lights, sounds or touch
- May display a lack of eye contact
- May have no fear of real danger
- May appear insensitive to pain.
- May exhibit self-stimulating behavior: hand flapping, body rocking or attachment to objects
- May wander, be attracted to water sources, roadways or peer into and enter dwellings
And, when it comes to interacting with people with autism, Debbaudt adds:
- Display calming body language; give person extra personal space
- Use simple language
- Speak slowly, repeat and rephrase questions
- Use concrete terms and ideas; avoid slang
- Allow extra time for response
"We are just educating the community about autism, so they can recognize it, be more tolerant and more apt to get involved," Rulison says.
She hopes The Henry Ford becomes a model for other public places to emulate.
"It's unique that an organization has gone to the extent that The Henry Ford has to put these supports in place," she says. "We hope people with autism will really feel welcome and they'll come back."