Autism Friendly

Autism friendly means awareness of social engagement and environmental factors affecting people on the autism spectrum, with modifications to communication methods and physical space to better suit individual’s unique and special needs. Individuals on the autism spectrum take in information from their five senses as do neurotypical people, but they are not able to process it as quickly and can become overwhelmed by the amount of information that they are receiving and withdraw as a coping mechanism.

They may experience difficulty in public settings due to inhibited communication, social interaction or flexibility of thought development. Knowing about these differences and how to react effectively helps to create a more inclusive society. It also better suits the needs of the growing number of individuals with autism, Asperger syndrome (high functioning autism), or other disorders on the autism spectrum.

Being autism friendly means being understanding and flexible in interpersonal conversation, public programs and public settings. In the end, working together makes our experiences together better for everyone. For example, a person might think that someone is being rude if they will not look them in the eyes – or doesn’t understand clichés like ‘it’s a piece of cake,’ when in fact there may be an underlying reason for this. Depending upon the individual’s level of functioning, a person who hears ‘it’s a piece of cake’ may take that literally and not understand that what is really meant is ‘it will be easy.’ For someone on the autism spectrum, being in an autism friendly environment means they will be have a manageable degree of sensory stimuli, which will make them calmer, better able to process the sensory stimulation they receive, and better able to relate to others.

Organizations interested in spreading awareness about autism and how to be autism friendly, such as the The Autism Directory, have created training programs for communities to illustrate how people with autism may communicate or interact differently than neurotypical people, or people without autism. There are also suggestions for how to modify one’s reaction to improve communication. Some training examples are: When you find that someone may not be able to look you in the eyes, realize they are not trying to be rude, it’s just uncomfortable for them to do so. A person may have difficulty understanding clichés or expressions and interpret a phrase literally. By speaking directly and factually, like saying ‘It’s easy’ as compared to ‘It’s a piece of cake,’ you are more likely to be understood. Body language, facial expressions, gestures, and turning away from someone may be cues that are missed by an autistic person. This is another opportunity to be direct and factual, realizing that your body language or social cues may not be picked up. The person may have limited vocabulary or speech perception. Patience is helpful here. Allow time for the person to comprehend what was said. Ask how you can help. If they use sign language or a symbol set to communicate, adapt as you are able. Other pointers are: avoid making loud sounds; do not surprise them, let them know your plans; limit or avoid vigorous activities; and talk or engage in activities that they care about.

Some people with autism may be hypersensitive to changes in sight, touch, smell, taste and sound; the sensory stimulus could be very distracting or they could result in pain or anxiety. There are other people who are hyposensitive and may not feel extreme changes in temperature or pain. Each of these has implications for making an autism friendly environment. There are several factors in creating a supportive environment. One of them is adherence to a standard routine and structure. Since change of routine can be quite anxiety producing for many autistic people, a structured, predictable routine makes for calmer and happier transitions during the day. Another important factor is creating a low arousal space. Environments with the least amount of disruption will help autistic people remain calm. It’s important to speak in quiet, non-disruptive tones and to utilize a physical space that has a low level of disruption. Having a positive, empathetic attitude and ensuring consistent habits in work, school and recreational activities also help to minimize anxiety and distress and help an autistic person succeed. This is the SPELL approach which stand for Structure – Positive – Empathy – Low arousal – Links. Social stories can be used to communicate ways in which an autistic person can prepare themselves for social interaction.

There are several ways that the physical space can be designed and organized to be autism friendly. It is important for rooms to be decorated with serenity in mind, like painting the walls with calming colors. Thick carpeting and double-paned glass help to minimize distracting noise. Materials within the rooms may be organized, grouped and labeled with words or symbols to make items easier to locate.

Autism friendliness can have a significant impact on an individual’s interpersonal life and work life, benefited by consistency across all areas of one’s life. For example: due to the break of routine with family vacations, many families with autistic members may avoid taking vacations. Steps can be taken to help make for a successful family vacation. One is sharing information like pictures or internet web pages. There are organizations that will make accommodations, if requested, to better manage uncertainty, crowds, noise disruption. This includes theme parks who allow people with autism to skip long lines and airlines or airports that may allow for a dry-run prior to the trip. Another tip is to prepare prior to the trip so that there is a plan for managing boredom.

In the United States, the Theater Development Fund (TDF) created a program in 2011 to ‘make theater accessible to children and adults on the autism spectrum.’ Called the Autism Theater Initiative, it’s part of their Accessibility Programs, and was done in conjunction with Autism Speaks, Disney and experts who reviewed the performance for areas of modification. Adjustments that have been name for the initiative include: quiet areas in theater lobby, performance changes that reduced strobe light use and noise, and areas where people can go perform an activity if they leave the theater  Social stories, which explain what the experience will be like (such as loud noises, needing a break and moving through a crowd), were made available prior to the performance. These performances included ‘Lion King’ and ‘Mary Poppins.’

Going to a movie theater can be an overwhelming experience for someone on the autism spectrum. Crowding as people queue up to buy tickets. Loud movie volume. Dark theater lighting. All of these are sensory overload triggers that have kept some autistic people from ever seeing a movie at the cinema. Some movie theaters are becoming more autism friendly: The lighting is adjusted so it’s not so dark, the volume is reduced and queues are managed to prevent crowding. Odeon Cinemas in London has implemented such ‘sensory friendly’ nights. In the United States there are also ‘sensory friendly’ movie-going experiences to be had through collaboration with the Autism Society of America. Monthly, AMC Theaters will provide nights when people on the autism spectrum and their families may experience an autism friendly movie night. The program is also intended for people with other disabilities whose movie going experience will also be improved in such a setting.

Providing the best outcomes for a child on the autism spectrum may be difficult, complicated by each child’s unique way of managing communication and interaction with others, associated disorders that make each child’s situation unique, and emerging understandings of neurodiversity. Teacher effectiveness can be optimized based upon their awareness of the differences along the autism spectrum, acceptance that each child is unique, engagement of the child in social and educational activities and employment of teaching methods that are found to be helpful with people with developmental disability. Teachers play a key role in the success of a student on the autism spectrum by helping them to understand directions, organize tasks and support their achievements. One example is organizing and grouping materials together for activities in specific ways. Schools dedicated to being autism friendly, like Pathlight School in Singapore, designed their campus to offer students ‘dignity’ in an autism-friendly environment. There the campus was architecturally designed, landscaped and the interior created with a simple color scheme. All of this helps to avoid triggering sensory overload. There is a low teacher to student ratio, a focus on nurturing, and a comprehensive life-skills training and education program.

Empathizing-systemizing theory with video technology can be used to present information in an autism friendly way that promotes understanding. For instance, computer applications or DVDs of actors making facial expressions to inform how body language provides clues about how someone might be feeling. Or, in the case of ‘The Transporters’ (an animation series designed to help children with autism recognize and understand emotions) interesting items like trains are used to wear faces, drawing in the viewer into the faces.

Being met with an individual in a dark uniform can be intimidating to a person with autism. Police and emergency responders may become frustrated, not knowing a person that they’re talking to is autistic. The responders may not be communicating in a way that will create understanding and make the situation less stressful. A program has been launched in Glasgow, Scotland to enter information into a database about autistic people so that responding police and emergency personnel are notified when they will be meeting an autistic person and may then communicate in a way that increases understanding. Autism Alert Cards, for example, are available for autistic people in Scottish Borders and Lothian Scotland so that police and emergency personnel will recognize autistic individuals and respond appropriately. The cards, which encourage autism friendly interaction, have a couple of key points about interacting with people with autism.

‘Neurotypical’ people and those on the autism spectrum may have very different ways of communicating their feeling about life events, including: Coping with illness, injury and recuperation; Dealing with dying and death; Incorporating rituals and traditions for managing life events; Managing emotions; and Learning from life events. Just because people may process and communicate their feelings differently, though, doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. It is best to be honest and literal to help a person with autism to manage major life events. Providing information, and allowing them time to process it, are other important factors. Lastly, communication tools will also help to process and manage the event. People on the autism spectrum can help themselves manage situations by being aware of what they’re feeling and thinking — and expressing their thoughts to important people in their life. Other tools are being aware of when they need help and asking for it — and thanking people when they’ve received assistance or a gift.

Educational technological applications for people with autism include Digital talking books, which are used to assist people with disabilities, commonly people who are blind, and also for people with autism. One such use is for taped church programs. Autism-friendly applications are available for the iPad, including an interface between a child and a storyteller on a video. By repeating what the narrator says, the children hear themselves tell the story. Reading the stories aloud helps children improve their language and communication skills, as well as improving fine motor skills, social skills and sensory skills. Mobile applications can be used by people on the autism spectrum to manage tasks at work. They can manage a checklist of tasks and reminder prompts. This helps a person be more calm and effective and rely less on managers or job coaches to prompt for needed work. Tony Gentry, who led research on the application at Virginia Commonwealth University said: “This is an exciting time for anyone in the fields of education, physical rehabilitation, and vocational support, where we are seeing a long-awaited merging of consumer products and assistive technologies for all.’

Emotion Markup Language is a general-purpose emotion annotation and representation language, which should be usable in a large variety of technological contexts where emotions need to be represented. Emotion-oriented computing (or ‘affective computing’ – systems that can recognize, interpret, process, and simulate human affects) is gaining importance as interactive technological systems become more sophisticated. For people on the autism spectrum, it can be used to make the emotional intent of content explicit. This would enable people with learning disabilities (such as Asperger’s Syndrome) to realize the emotional context of the content.

As the prevalence of autism increases, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that customer-facing organizations have basic tools for communicating with people on the autism spectrum. Tesco, a multinational supermarket chain, has implemented training for its employees to meet the needs of its customers who are on the autism spectrum, which is estimated to be one of every 100 people in the United Kingdom. Employees use an online training site and respond to a questionnaire to assess the extent to which they became more aware of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Tesco is the first company to participate in an awareness program led by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA). The online training and questionnaire tool is intended to be used by many organizations in Wales to identify and commend businesses that are ‘ASD Aware.’

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