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Autism Alliance & Advocates Create Welcoming Community Initiative

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Susan Petroni
Framingham Source
December 30, 2019

The Autism Alliance, a program of Advocates, this month announced progress with its Autism Welcoming Community Initiative, an effort to create a socially inclusive community for families and their loved ones with autism by partnering with local businesses and training a caregiver workforce.

The initiative focuses on two programs, Sensitivity Responsiveness for Community Businesses, which provides tools and training to help businesses create accepting and inclusive environments, and Caregiver Corps, which trains people to provide family caregivers with respite services.

“An Autism Welcoming community allows individuals with autism and their families the opportunity to thrive and enhance their quality of life,” said Allison Daigle, executive co-director of the Autism Alliance and the mother of an adult son with autism. “We are grateful that many local businesses and caregivers are stepping up to learn more about people with autism and to help create an accepting and accessible community.”

With support from the Autism Alliance, local businesses and caregivers are trained to understand the autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by a range of challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. 

An estimated 1 in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder and the prevalence continues to rise, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To date, more than 20 community businesses have received the training to become an approved sensitivity responsive business. 

Employees have gained a deeper understanding of the special accommodations that are needed for people with autism and their families so that they can enjoy a more welcoming, inclusive environment. 

Businesses that have completed the training can proudly display an “Autism Welcoming” decal on their window and logo on their website.

APEX Entertainment, a family entertainment center in Marlborough, recently completed the training.  About 30 managers from APEX’s Marlborough and upstate New York locations were trained in the Marlborough facility so they could help children and their families acclimate to the multi-sensory entertainment venue.  APEX has implemented the following:

  • Sensory-friendly hours on Saturday mornings and during vacation weeks with no flashing or strobe lights and no loud music;
  • A sensory toolkit, including fidget toys, given to children upon arrival to help them focus and self-regulate, and to provide a calming influence;
  • An “Autism Welcoming” badge worn by children and staff to encourage acceptance and social interaction;
  • Photos of menu items for ease in ordering and over 60 gluten-free options; and
  • A quiet room that provides a calm environment.

“Seeing the enjoyment on the kids’ faces and the pride on their parents’ faces is a testament to how much these families benefit by having a fun, safe place to socialize,” said Michelle Doucette, General Manager of APEX Entertainment.  “It was eye-opening to realize that autism impacts the entire family.  Many families with a loved one with autism might refrain from going to certain places because they aren’t ‘autism friendly.’ So, if businesses can offer small but impactful adjustments for a more inclusive environment, everyone benefits.”

Caregiver Corps enables family caregivers respite from juggling caregiving, work, family, and other responsibilities.  The corps is comprised of caring individuals who are trained to understand autism and the interests of the family for which they provide care.

“Caregiving for a family member with autism can have an adverse impact on a family caregiver’s health and independence,” said Daigle.  “Our goal is to build a Caregiver Corps that will provide family caregivers with their top request: respite.”

Caregiver Corps recruits students as caregivers from local colleges and high schools, including MassBay Community College, Framingham High School, and Natick High School.

The Autism Welcoming Community Initiative is made possible by a grant to Advocates from Becker Center for Advocacy at The Arc of Massachusetts.

 Additional funding for the Caregiver Corps is provided by Sudbury Foundation.

The Autism Alliance is a program of Advocates offering events, support and resources for individuals with autism and their families.  The Autism Alliance is made up of more than 2,000 families and more than 200 specialists in the field – a community of people sharing information and experiences, and offering support in a variety of ways.