What is “Autism Friendly”?

As we go back to school, we are all looking for places to spend time with our kids on the weekend. My kids seem to have an endless supply of energy I wish I could tap into for the good of all mankind.

“Autism Friendly” is a very squishy term that seems to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. We’re all calling around town looking for any kind of place to take our kids – a party place, a gym, camp, theatre group, martial arts, ice skating lessons, swimming, piano lessons – you name it. And the first question you ask is… “How much do you charge?”

The next question we will all ask is, “Are you autism friendly?”

Okay, the follow up questions for that when they say, “Sure! We’re autism friendly,” is what?? It’s a natural response for them to automatically say yes. It’s not that they’re trying to deceive you, they may have no idea what it really means, and they don’t want to exclude anyone. They may actually want to make an honest effort. And autism is a spectrum disorder – their exposure may be totally different than your kid. What does that mean to them? Ask a few more simple questions that will let you know if they know what they’re talking about…

For example, here’s our little snafu. We went to a popular indoor gym/playground for kids. It had little classes for kids – and we did try two different places and companies. I called ahead and asked if they were autism friendly, both places said “yes,” and both places ended up kicking out the kids. Why? Because they didn’t really understand what they were saying “yes” to, and I didn’t know the questions to ask beforehand – and I could’ve saved myself a migraine, and my kids a lot of unnecessary distress. It stinks getting kicked out, and its’ even more difficult for you to try again. It caused us to isolate ourselves for a long time – we didn’t have any place to go with the kids where we felt welcome.

Here’s 5 tips:

  1. Are you autism friendly? (Don’t forget to ask this one!) What does that mean to you? (If there’s silence at the other end, or a “no,” you need to help them out here a little bit. Explain it’s a spectrum disorder, and where your kid is on the spectrum. How much they can communicate, if at all? Do they have any stimming behaviors? What happens when they’re overwhelmed? You’re teaching someone something very valuable here – so try and be sensitive to that. At the end of the day, though, they may not be equipped to handle your kid – and always talk to the manager, not the random person that answers the phone.)
  2. Can a parent or therapist remain with your child at all times? Now, when our kids started ice-skating lessons, that wasn’t possible (for insurance reasons) – so they assigned an assistant coach to help. Benita was awesome, and knew exactly what to do – as she had someone in her life that had autism.
  3. What special accommodations are there that can be made? Extra time, one on one or smaller group situations – or shorter sessions? Some places will try to cop out by saying “oh, just pay for private lessons.” Remind them that part of doing this is specifically for your kid to learn how to interact in a group situation with typical peers. They can’t do that if they’re isolated from everyone else. For example, the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center started our kids in semi-private lessons in the therapy pool, which was more secluded for them to get acquainted with the situation, get used to the teacher, Sarah, the pool, and the general setup. Once they acclimated, they were able to move to smaller groups, and/or in the larger public pool. The center also has a special needs swim team called the Sting Rays – which is pretty cool. Not everyone will be this way, but it’s something to strive for. Remember, you may their first “test kid” with autism in the program, so you can be involved in helping to frame that out. You can’t just “drop and go” like most parents. And the experience they have with you and your child will likely be the way they do it in the future. Be the trailblazer!
  4. Who to talk to if there is an incident. There might be an incident between your kid and another kid. It happens. And it happens more often with kids with autism. Most importantly – STAY CALM. After you diffuse the situation, whatever it is, (it may be simply removing your child from the immediate area), go as soon as possible and let management know what happened. We had a kid say Alex was grabbing at him, so he shoved him down on the ice. The mother was horrible – screaming, confrontational to Alex. So, instead of getting into it with her, which I really wanted to do – I went to the manager. (Now, as you spend more time at a place, they get to know you and your kid.) So, when this mom went two hours later to literally scream at the manager, they already knew about it and were prepared. And, they stuck up for Alex, which was wonderful. They were able to diffuse the situation somewhat, and avoided escalating the scene. In fact, although she eventually never came again, the kids that were with hers initially later became friends with Alex and now understand what he’s like and are okay with it. Kids can be very understanding – and a better role model than the mother was. As much as everyone thinks they know about autism, they still don’t have much experience with it.
  5. Follow up, let them know your thoughts. How is your kid progressing? Check in with the teacher and management. Let them know when it’s going well and they’re doing a great job. Everyone loves to hear that, I don’t care how old they are! If something needs to be tweaked, it can be worked on. Your kid’s success opens the door for others – now that the people at wherever you go know what that really means.

One thought on “What is “Autism Friendly”?

  1. No, that’s about right, although the older my dautgher gets, the older *I* feel. She’ll be in junior high next year, and I don’t even feel old enough to have a kid starting middle school.It’s crazy logic that I gave up trying to understand years ago. LOL

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