Several years ago I was shopping in a grocery store in my neighborhood. As I was in the middle of my shopping I heard a familiar sound a few aisles over. It was a loud yelling, crying, tantrum-y sound. It took me a second to place it but then it hit me. It was a student of mine, a 9 year old with autism. I had heard it in my classroom many times – when he would become dysregulated by loud sounds or unexpected changes, or when his clothes got wet (he hated that). I immediately stopped my shopping and started making my way over to see if I could help. As I was walking I could not help but notice the reactions of the other shoppers, or hear their not-so-quiet words of disapproval. “Why can't that mom control her child?” “He is so spoiled!” “Isn't he too old to be in the cart anyway?”
When I got to the boy and his mom I took in the situation. The mom was holding him as he was thrashing in her arms, yelling and crying. She spotted me and quickly explained what was going on. The sprinkler for the produce went on as he was reaching for a green apple, his favorite. Aside from being surprised, his hand and shirt got wet which led to the meltdown. I worked with his mom to help calm him down, and after a few minutes the most disheartening thing happened. A store employee walked over and said the mom that the store had gotten several complaints and if she could not get her son calm they would be asked to leave.
As I said, this was several years ago and I think things have gotten better, but there is still a lot of work to do. There are two big issues to tackle to ensure that every individual with autism can be successful and take advantage of every opportunity within their community. The first is acceptance. In the case of the boy at the grocery store, the shoppers and more importantly the employees of the store needed more information and training to understand and accept that what was happening was typical for a person on the autism spectrum, and they needed strategies to support the child and the mom, rather than further marginalize them.
The second issue is access. That very same grocery store had accommodations for individuals with low vision, mobility issues, and hearing impairments. But there was not a single support for individuals on the autism spectrum. Just as it would be impossible for an individual in a wheelchair to access the second floor of the grocery store without a ramp or elevator, it was equally inaccessible for an individual with autism. Supports like social guides, visual cues, and sensory maps of the store would go a long way to helping individuals on the autism spectrum be able to access the store successfully and without losing dignity.
I recently came across a group that is working towards a world of access and acceptance for individuals on the autism spectrum. KultureCity (www.kulturecity.org) is a nonprofit doing amazing work on behalf of the autism community. This quote from their website speaks a powerful truth:
“Isolation, unemployment, and lack of education have been assumed to be inevitable consequences of the limitations imposed by autism itself. This is simply not the entire truth. The inferior economic and social status of people with autism is not a consequence of the disability itself, but rather the result of societal barriers and prejudices.”
What stories do you have about the barriers and prejudices of society and the autism community? We'd love to hear from you and work together towards a world where individuals on the autism spectrum are seen and supported equally as all individuals in society.