What Does "Autism Friendly" Mean?

Autism friendly programs are popping up everywhere.

at the movies
at the movies. Getty Images

What's an Autism Friendly Event or Venue?

If you're the parent of a child with autism, chances are you've heard about at least one opportunity to take part in an "autism friendly" event.  Perhaps it was a concert, a theatrical performance, or a movie.  It might even have been a visit to an airport, a zoo or museum.  These events and venues are becoming more and more common as autism is becoming better known -- and parents of children with autism are starting to become a niche market.

"Autism-friendly" is a tricky concept because, of course, every person with autism has different needs. To keep things simple, therefore, most venues focus on symptoms of autism which are more or less universal, and which are relatively easy to control. 

In most cases, "autism friendly" venues and events are intended to accommodate specific issues:

  • sensory challenges
  • a need to move or make noise
  • difficulty with large crowds
  • need for more or simpler instruction
  • need for greater support to ensure success

What Are Autism-Friendly Events Like?

What does this look like?  Here are a few common "autism friendly" modifications:

In theaters, the sound is turned down so that explosions and music are kept relatively non-intrusive.  Rules are relaxed so that audiences are allowed to get up, move around, and even make noise.

Some programs and events are modified to avoid noise and crowds. For example, "autism friendly" museum hours are generally before or after general admission hours, when crowds can be kept to a minimum.

When an organization decides to get serious about autism support, they may spend significant time and energy to ensure that their autistic guests are comfortable.

In some (limited) cases, autism friendly programs are kept shorter, and supported with more staff.  Thus, for example, a YMCA "autism friendly" basketball program might allow only 8 children supported by two staff members.

An "autism friendly" airport event might invite families with autistic members to actually practice going through security and walking to the gate.  Such programs, while rare, include quite a bit of careful previewing and staff training.

Who Offers Autism Friendly Events?

"Autism-friendly" programs are now starting to pop up in surprising ways.  Over the last few years, for example:

  • Carnival cruise lines have begun running "Autism on the Seas" cruises, specifically intended for families with autistic children.
  • Sports-minded autism parents have discovered that their children with autism can learn sports skills with the right support, and they have gone on to create full-fledged programs in everything from swimming and surfing to bow hunting, sailing, and more.
  • Autism-friendly arts programs invite people with autism and related disabilities to take part in art classes which include less verbal instruction, fewer sticky or smelly substances, and more opportunity to be recognized for art which falls outside the "usual" box.

Why Are Autism-Friendly Events Becoming So Popular?

As you may have noticed, the vast majority of autism-friendly offerings are segregated from rather than integrated into typical community programs.

  A movie theater might, for example, run special showings at off hours for an autistic audience.  A zoo might offer a special "autism day" for a family with autistic children. Broadway theaters offer morning shows specifically for their autistic audiences.  And so forth.

The reasons for this segregation may appear simple, but they're actually rather complex.  First, of course, it's easier to control the environment when only a small group of people with similar needs come through the door.  But beyond that:

  • Modifications are actually quite attractive to families withOUT autistic members.  Any family would find it easier to allow their children to run up and down the aisles in the movie theater -- but of course, this would undermine the attempt to provide a calm environment for autistic people.
  • Many people who are unfamiliar with autism are anxious about engaging with people on the spectrum. Some venues, to avoid this issue, simply provide segregated programs -- for better or for worse.
  • Many people who have autistic children actually prefer segregated, presumably non-judgmental settings.