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 years ago, I was determined not to let autism limit my family life in any way. We would make our own happy memories, just like everyone else.
Wishful thinking on my part.
Countless times our 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, having barely made it past the gift shop. On the drive home, I silently wept. Always, I felt torn between respecting my son's needs and wanting to ease him out of his comfort zone ever so slightly so he could experience new things.
We went at off-peak hours. We meticulously planned and packed. But even then, sometimes disaster would strike. There would be an awful scene. Many days we simply weighed up the situation and figured going out wasn't worth the gamble. We stayed home or else stuck to a dwindling number of options in our neighbourhood.
In short: it sucked. And, disability notwithstanding, no family should have to live like that. Like prisoners in your own home.
Thankfully, in the few years since my son's diagnosis, things have changed. Businesses are not only more aware of autism, but some are willingly reaching out and 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 list of autism friendly attractions is by no means exhaustive, and I would love for readers to share and build on this list:
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!
Ripley's has teamed up with Autism Ontario for the last three years to offer an annual sensory-friendly evening in April. As with other sensory events, the sound is lowered, lights raised, and a quiet room made available for those who "need a break from the excitement." I hope such evenings will become a regular feature at Ripley's.
In 2015, 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. Since then, the ROM has put together a guide for visitors with ASD, complete with what sort of sensory experiences might require some adjustment, when is the most quiet time to go, and where to find quiet areas.
What kid 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.
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. Online, parents and caregivers can find a resources booklet for their latest plays, which includes a social story, scene cues, and a picture storyboard.
A long list of organizations across the country - from movie theatres to art 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 small minority of Canadian families. Yet these businesses are stepping out of their corporate comfort zones and trying something new - not because they have to - but in a true spirit of inclusiveness. And that (for want of a better phrase) simply rocks.