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Your ATN@Work: Helping businesses go autism-friendly

The Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders is helping Missouri businesses create autism-friendly venues and workplaces

By Kim Selders, a training specialist at the University of Missouri Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. The Thompson Center is one of 14 sites in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.

I am so pleased to tell you about our ATN center’s Autism Friendly Business initiative.

I probably don’t need to tell the readers of this blog about the need for more autism-friendly venues and workplaces in our communities. Readers who have a child with autism – or are themselves on the spectrum – know how challenging public places can be, with their overwhelming sounds and sights and confusing expectations.

At the same time, many well-meaning business owners don’t know where to begin to create an autism-friendly venue for customers or support an employee who has the condition.

Our center’s Autism Friendly Business program provides free training to Missouri businesses to help increase inclusion of people with autism in our communities.

We provide:

* Training for employees on location – showing them how to welcome and support customers and co-workers who have autism. In particular, we focus on how the business can best support the safety, communication and comfort of people with autism.

* Customized autism-friendly materials and tools. These include visual supports and social narratives designed to show people with autism what to expect at the business and how to access its services.

* An Autism Friendly Business window decal (shown above) and marketing materials to welcome families and individuals with autism to their businesses – while also increasing autism awareness in the community.

We also tailor our trainings and materials for each business. For example, as a training specialist, I will first learn about a business’s goods, services, customers, employees and goals. Then I’ll work together with business owners and employees to create an employee training program as well as real-life strategies and materials for customers who have autism. The training and tools build staff skills and comfort in serving people who have autism – while enhancing the customer experience for those with the condition.

In addition, we can train businesses about ways to recruit, hire and support employees with autism.

The business owners and employees who have participated in this program tell us they love it. Making a business more welcoming to individuals and families affected by autism widens their customer base, increases revenue and fosters a very special kind of customer loyalty. It has also helped our participating businesses become recognized leaders in our community.

We began our program in July of 2015 – inspired by a similar program created by the University of South Florida Center for Autism and Related Disorders, in Tampa.

So far, we’ve completed autism-friendly trainings at a hotel, chiropractic office, massage center, radio station and university basketball arena here in Columbia, Missouri.

Meet some of Columbia’s Autism Friendly Businesses
The Broadway DoubleTree Hotel was one of the first businesses to complete our program. The hotel staff learned about autism and ways to support the safety, communication and comfort of guests affected by the condition.  

For example, they learned autism-friendly communication strategies for making a hotel reservation. This included making suggestions on autism-friendly room locations, housekeeping options and dining to accommodate dietary needs.

We also helped the hotel develop a picture story – or social narrative – about being a guest at the hotel. As caregivers of those with autism know well – it’s often tremendously helpful to go over “what to expect” in a visual way before a new experience. You can see the first two pages of this visual support above. You can download the full social narrative here.

In addition, the hotel now keeps a stock of special toys and other distraction and comfort items that families can borrow to calm a tired or frustrated child.

Hotel staff learned important safety considerations for those with autism – including how to respond when a child wanders or bolts from their caregivers.

The hotel’s restaurant staff learned about accommodating food sensitivities and preferences. They now have a picture menu on hand as a visual support for ordering meals and snacks.

An autism-friendly sports arena
Another of our Autism Friendly Businesses is the University of Missouri basketball venue – our beloved “Mizzou Arena.”

Event staff learned about the special challenges that attending a game can pose for those who have autism and related communication and sensory issues. Like the staff at the Broadway DoubleTree, the arena employees learned respectful ways to communicate with those who have autism.

We developed a picture story, a visual schedule, an autism-friendly map of the arena and other information to help prepare a child or adult with autism for the experience of a basketball game. (See the first two pages of the picture story at right, and download the whole social narrative here.)

Audience members can borrow these materials at the arena or download them from the arena website before attending. In addition, the arena offers earplugs for the sound-sensitive, and all the concession stands have picture menus. (See example below.)

The arena also created designated “quiet areas” where families and individuals with sensory issues can go when they need a break from the noise and excitement of a game.

An autism-friendly chiropractor
Yet another of our program graduates is Focus On Health Chiropractic. The chiropractors and their staff learned about autism and ways to support patients with autism. This included emphasizing family involvement in care, using effective communication strategies, preventing and responding to challenging behaviors and providing positive reinforcement.

We also encouraged the staff to invite new patients for “pre-appointments” when they can visit the office and familiarize themselves with the sights, sounds and sensations before their actual appointment with one of the chiropractic doctors.

Together, we created a picture story (see the first page right) and other materials to help families or individuals with autism prepare for their appointment, including what to bring, wear and how to communicate their needs to the staff. (See example below.)

We are proud of all the Missouri businesses that have partnered with us to welcome customers and employees affected by autism. We are also excited to continue developing our program and supporting many more Missouri businesses on their path to becoming autism-friendly. Perhaps our program can even serve as a model for other ATN centers and communities across North America.

We invite you to learn more about our Autism Friendly Business program and download all the materials mentioned above on our website here.

* Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
* Find the ATN center nearest you 
* Explore our archive of ATN expert-advice blogs and news stories 

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.