Autism has become a household word in America, in part due to extensive awareness efforts over the last several years and mainly because of the sheer magnitude of the autism health crisis in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 88 children is now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. If you don’t personally know someone affected by autism yet, you probably will soon.
All of this awareness has been helpful in spurring research, focusing attention on the need for greater resources and services for people with autism, and helping to end the stigma long associated with this disorder.
Yet families affected by autism are still often left feeling like they are not truly part of their communities. Some of that feeling of isolation comes from the fact that it can be challenging — if not outright impossible — for families like mine to take part in activities that most take for granted. Whether it’s going to a movie, heading out for a pancake breakfast, catching a baseball game, or attending a town barbecue, we often decide it’s ultimately not worth taking the risk that what should be a fun outing could turn into a fiasco.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement to develop events — or modify existing ones — that take the unique needs of people with autism into consideration and create marvelous experiences for them. Broadway theaters have started hosting special performances for families with autism, featuring toned-down lighting, sound, and special effects, as well as quiet rooms for kids who need some time away from the action. Movie theater chains host autism-only screenings, where parents don’t have to worry if their child screams or otherwise acts out.
I am proud to be involved with a new effort that will hopefully inspire others to follow suit. Dover International Speedway, NASCAR, FedEx, and the national advocacy organization Autism Speaks are partnering to create the first autism-friendly NASCAR race experience for families. At this weekend’s FedEx 400, families with autism can attend the "Autism Speaks Day at the Races," which will feature prerace presentations on the latest autism research and services available to families. During the race, a "quiet zone" in the grandstand will allow parents to bring their kids to a sensory-friendly place to take in the action away from the crowd and noise.
Not every entertainment venue can accommodate families in this way, but it is important for organizations such as NASCAR, movie theater chains, restaurants, and others to know that doing so isn’t just a good deed — it’s also good business. Like all families, we "vote" with our wallets, spending our limited entertainment dollars where they will bring us the best experiences. Autism-friendly events are business-savvy, and they help develop communities that are inclusive and welcoming for all.