One of the most common questions I get from friends, family and community members is how to make a difference in the life of someone with autism. While there is a big spectrum in the autism community, there are some common features and struggles that can be addressed with simple modifications.

Crowded spaces and long lines are particular challenges for individuals with autism. For this reason, many families will avoid certain restaurants or events because the stresses of these scenarios are worse than any benefit they may have. This can lead to social isolation and lack of community involvement in some of the great events that occur in Rutland every year. If you are a business owner or community event planner, there are three things that can be very impactful to the autism community. Open the first 30 minutes of your event to individuals with special needs. This will allow them to acclimate to the new environment or experience without overwhelming crowds. Allow for options where you don’t have to wait in long lines to participate in an activity, such as call-ahead seating. And have an identifiable calming space, if possible, to allow those with autism to have a safe space to reset if needed.

Loud noises, bright lights and intense smells can be incredibly uncomfortable to those with autism. Imagine if every time you went out to eat you were forced to hear nails on a chalkboard incessantly for the entire time you dined. This is a fair analogy of what individuals with autism experience when they are confronted with loud sounds, bright lights or intense smells. Being “sensory friendly” can make a big difference, such as providing over-the-ear earmuffs if loud noises are expected, decreasing the lighting, especially with fluorescent lighting, and providing seating far from the kitchen or other strong smells.

Above all else, show compassion. One of the most distressing things, especially as a parent, is to be met with sneers when your child is struggling with sensory overload in the waiting room of an office or in line for an event. If you see a family struggling to maintain order with their children, respond with a smile and a kind word. Simply holding the door or allowing someone else to sit before you at a restaurant can change someone’s day in the best possible way.

This week’s Health Talk was written by Rick Hildebrant, hospital medicine specialist, and president of the Rutland Autism Family Group. For more information contact www.rafg.org

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