With summer on the horizon, there's a seemingly endless number of activities for families to enjoy. Yet many attractions are simply off limits for families like mine. These destinations are too loud, too crowded, too noisy, too something.
When my son was diagnosed four years ago, I was determined not to let autism stymie my family life in any way. We would make our own happy memories, just like everyone else.
Wishful thinking on my part, as many of our early excursions were spectacular failures. Once, we drove for over an hour to a farm only to find ourselves back in the car 15 minutes later, never having made it beyond the gift shop. On the long drive back home, I silently wept. Always I felt torn between respecting my son's needs and wanting to ease him out of his comfort zone so he could experience new things.
We went at off-peak hours. We meticulously planned and packed. But even then, sometimes there would be an awful scene. Many days, we simply weighed up the situation and gave going out a miss. We stayed home, or else stuck to a dwindling number of 'safe' options in our neighbourhood.
We became prisoners in our own home, and it sucked. No family should have to live that way.
Thankfully, in the few years since my son's diagnosis, the climate is changing. Businesses are not only more aware of autism, some are willingly offering special accommodations. They are meeting families where they're at -- so kids like mine can enjoy what's on offer along with everybody else.
The following autism friendly attractions is by no means exhaustive, and I would love nothing better than to see this list grow:
Cineplex was one of the first major players to announce sensory friendly screenings of the latest family movies for children with autism. Every 4-6 weeks, various theatres play new releases with the lights up and the sound down. My son prefers to wear noise-cancelling headphones to regular shows. Still, it's nice to have the option, even for sensitive adults!
In April, Ripley's teamed up with Autism Ontario to offer a sensory friendly evening. As with other sensory events, the sound was lowered, lights dimmed, and a quiet room made available for those who "need a break from the excitement." Hopefully such evenings will become a regular feature at Ripley's and other popular attractions.
ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM (ROM)
Last year, the museum partnered with Magnusmode, Autism Ontario and Easter Seals to bring a weekend of awareness to the ROM. Around 40 families took part in the pilot project to make the museum more accessible to people with autism. The free app breaks down what can be an overwhelming experience -- visiting a vast museum. The process of getting tickets and visiting the dinosaur gallery is broken down into manageable chunks to foster independence.
Show me a kid who doesn't love to jump and bounce! Although Sky Zone welcomes kids of all abilities any time, once a month the trampoline park turns dims the lights and dials down the music "for the comfort of our extra special jumpers." Sky Zone even welcomes a caregiver to jump with the child, therefore easing the worries of anxious parents.
YOUNG PEOPLE'S THEATRE (YPT)
The theatre offers what they call "relaxed" performances specifically tailored for kids on the spectrum. Not only does YPT adjust the sound and lighting of performances, it provides a 'relief area' outside the main stage. Staff are on hand to assist. Viewers are encouraged to use of "any devices, food or fidget tools, as needed during the performance."
To cap it off, YPT made an intro video to help prepare kids for a visit to the theatre. To coincide with its recent staging of Goodnight Moon, the theatre put together a social story, scene cues, and a picture storyboard for families.
A long list of organizations across the country - from movie theatres to museums and galleries - have teamed up with Easter Seals to offer a discounted entry for kids with disabilities (typically the cost for a caregiver ticket is waived). The subsidy is a massive help to families, who often need that extra support just to go on special outings. Find out more about the Access 2 Card and how to apply.
The time and effort involved in such accommodations is impressive.
It's worth mentioning that the above organizations aren't acting with profit at the forefront. After all, autism still only affects a minority of Canadian families. Still, these businesses are stepping out of their corporate comfort zones -- not because they have to, but in a true spirit of inclusiveness.
If only all businesses would aspire to do the same.
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