“My goal for all of this is that everybody looks at autism as a normal variant of the human experience. It’s not a medical condition; it’s not an abnormality. It’s just a way of being different.”
— Tina Fletcher, EdD
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s motto, “Nothing About Us Without Us,” means that decisions about autism need to be made with input from people with autism. Tina Fletcher (Occupational Therapy, Dallas) and her students took that to heart in a project aimed at evaluating the autism-friendliness of community venues and events.
Fletcher used a $267,477 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to create sensory spaces on wheels for use at cultural arts and entertainment venues, and also developed an environmental audit process for businesses and other public venues. The purpose of the audits is twofold:
- To help neurodiverse people prepare themselves for being out in the community, and
- To give the venues suggestions on making their programming or environment as accommodating as possible for neurodiverse visitors
“We didn’t rate the places, because it’s not a contest,” Fletcher said. “Our goal was to reduce barriers to help neurodiverse people in the community.”
Conducting environmental audits
Fletcher hired five students from the nonPareil Institute, a Plano-based program for adults with autism, to go into the community with her doctorate-level OT students. The nonPareil students, who asked to be called crew members, evaluated venues on sensory, communication and social factors.
Megan Tripp and Ashlee Norris were among a team of TWU students who worked with the crew members on the audits, from planning which locations to visit to overseeing the actual audits.
“For each location, we provided the audit form digitally, so everyone got a chance to individually audit that location,” Norris said.
After crew members completed their audit forms, the group reconvened and discussed what they would change about the environment, what stood out to them, and what they enjoyed about the venue.
“Every place we went to had their own unique environmental strengths and weaknesses,” Tripp said, adding that the venues were not told in advance that the group was coming.
“We tried our best to blend in as typical customers,” she said.
A learning experience for all
Norris and Tripp said they and the crew members learned from the experience.
“I believe the guys from nonPareil gained independence and community involvement through this journey,” Norris said. “Personally, I gained insight and greater awareness to other individuals’ needs. This was my first experience working with adults, and I absolutely loved it.”
Tripp said the crew members “expressed that they were happy that their voices and some of their needs were spoken out into the community to hopefully make our community more autism friendly. I believe this project also pushed some of the crew members outside of their comfort zone to go to new locations and meet new people.”
For her, Tripp said, the experience brought awareness to some of the challenges in the community that many people face every day, including those with autism and other disabilities.
“Before this project, I never thought about how many barriers there are in grocery stores, coffee shops, libraries and other locations to autistic individuals fully participating in society,” she said. “There are many easy and affordable modifications that places in the community can incorporate to create a more inclusive environment.”
Fletcher noted that she learned something from the audits as well.
“One man commented on stores not oiling the hinges on their bathroom stall doors,” she said. “He pointed out that if he went in there to calm down and it ‘sounds like a haunted house,’ it’s not a calming environment.
“I just don’t notice things like that,” she added.
The doctoral students noted that the experience impacted their career plans.
“I found that the specific diagnosis I want to work with is autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and that includes pediatrics and adult,” Norris said. “My goal is to work in an outpatient clinic or hospital that provides occupational therapy for this population.”
Tripp said she would love to maintain contact with nonPareil and continue to work with individuals with various developmental disorders, intellectual disorders and conditions. “In the future I would love to be a pediatric OT, which opens the door to a variety of different populations – one of those being the autism community,” she said.
The grant-funded research has gained international attention, from a university in the United Kingdom to a Dutch sensory-friendly circus. Fletcher also has been asked to speak to the American Occupational Therapy Association’s Literacy of Community Practice members, and her students will present the work at the Texas Occupational Therapy Association Annual Conference Nov. 11-12 in Denton.
Several organizations throughout North Texas are considering implementing curriculum developed by Fletcher and speech language pathologist Kelly Wanzer. The curriculum is aimed at helping people with autism achieve self-awareness, self-care and self-advocacy in community environments.
“My goal for all of this is that everybody looks at autism as a normal variant of the human experience,” Fletcher said. “It’s not a medical condition; it’s not an abnormality. It’s just a way of being different.”
Learn more about the environmental audits, sensory spaces, and the curriculum at planningforautism.com.
By Karen Garcia
Marketing & Communication