by Lucy Wyndham

Even as the number of children with special needs increases in Connecticut schools, businesses are creating sensory-friendly environments to accommodate the growing population of children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In fact, while there are examples in Europe, the UK, and Australia of retail centers working to accommodate their ASD customers better, small businesses in Connecticut might just be leading the way in the United States.

What Do Sensory Issues Have to Do With Autism?

Autism is a mental condition present from early childhood. Children and adults with autism are characterized by difficulty in forming relationships with other people due to difficulty in grasping social skills, and difficulties in using language and abstract concepts.

Sensory issues are especially prevalent for ASD individuals, as they likely have issues processing information take in through the senses. Where a fluorescent light in a store might not even be noticed by a typical person, a person with autism might find the light physically painful, and might respond in ways that seem aggressive or violent.

Can Autism Help Us?

Growing research indicates that neurodiversity, i.e. the idea that neurological differences like autism are the result of normal variations in the human genome, might actually be a competitive advantage. However, even as the number of children with autism increases, people on the spectrum are largely considered unemployable.

Companies like EY, which created a pilot program to bring new hires with Asperger’s, and airports across the globe that are creating quiet rooms in for children with sensory issues, are at the tip of the spear of a new movement to capture ASD customers and increase ASD hires. Connecticut firms are not far behind.

Sensory Friendly Accommodations

The Connecticut Science Center in Hartford provides over 150 hands-on exhibits for young people, as well as a state-of-the-art 3D digital theater and four education labs. However, for young people struggling with sensory overload, the bustling sounds and bright lights make it nearly impossible to navigate for families with autistic children.

The Science Center has created special Sensory Friendly Hours in the past, and now has a Sensory Friendly Day planned. Visitors with special needs can enjoy a special sensory-friendly theater presentation, lowered PA volume, and dimmed lights for the hours of the event. What’s especially attractive to families about events like these is the lack of stigma.  Families know they’ll be entering an environment that understands and cares, and is truly a judgment-free zone.

Even theaters are beginning to provide sensory-friendly film experiences for families. Last summer, select AMC theaters hosted special film viewings with the lights up, the sound turned down, and an open invitation for audience members to move around, be active, and make noise. The program was jump started with a parent request, and over 300 children and parents attended the first screening.

It’s a Great Start

Making conducive physical accommodations available for those with autism is helpful and popular with children on the spectrum, but businesses don’t have to stop there. One of the most valuable things a company can do is educate staff and employees on autism, enabling staff to be resources in a supportive environment for children and adults. 

Also, businesses can:

  • Change how they hire (moving away from interview-based hiring practices to low key, informal tasks and projects)
  • Offer more online experiences so ASD individuals don’t have to go into the store
  • Dim the lights, and make more use of natural light
  • Create quiet rooms or break away spaces
  • Provide noise canceling headphones and fidget spinners
  • Lower the noise

Autism impacts over 1% of the worldwide population, but with nearly 1 in 3 young adults on the spectrum disconnected from work and school, businesses must do more to accommodate for the neurological differences autism causes. Special hours and program just for customers with sensory processing issues are a great start, but most Connecticut firms continue to strive to do more to hire ASD staff and to accommodate ASD customers.

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Lucy Wyndham is married to a guy on the autism spectrum. It’s a wonderful and interesting ride, which has opened up her eyes to a new way of seeing the world. She is also a writer, content manager, and a mother to two wonderful daughters.

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