SBJ/May 28-June 3, 2012/Opinion

A haven for families dealing with autism

Autism has become a household word in America, in part due to extensive awareness efforts over the past several years, and mainly because of the sheer magnitude of the autism health crisis in this country. According to data released by the CDC, one in every 88 children is now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. If you don’t personally know someone affected by autism yet, you probably will soon.

All of this awareness has been helpful in spurring research, focusing public attention on the need for greater resources and services for people with autism and also helping to end the stigma long associated with this disorder.

Yet families affected by autism are still often left feeling like they are not truly part of their communities. Part of that isolation comes from the fact that it can be challenging — if not outright impossible — for families like mine to take part in activities that most take for granted. Whether it’s going to a movie, taking the family out for a pancake breakfast, catching a baseball game or attending a town barbecue, we often decide it’s ultimately not worth taking the risk that what should be a fun outing will turn into a fiasco.

Fortunately, there is a growing movement to develop events — or modify existing ones — that take the unique needs of people with autism into consideration and create marvelous experiences for them. Broadway theaters have started hosting special performances for families with autism, featuring toned-down lighting, sound and special effects, as well as quiet rooms for kids who need some time away from the action. Movie theater chains host autism-only screenings, where parents don’t have to worry if their child screams or otherwise acts out.

I am proud to be involved with a new effort that will hopefully inspire others to follow suit. Dover International Speedway, NASCAR, FedEx and the national advocacy organization Autism Speaks are partnering to create the first autism-friendly NASCAR race experience for families. At the June 3 FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks race, families with autism can attend the “Autism Speaks Day at the Races,” which will feature pre-race presentations by advocates and experts. During the race, a dedicated quiet zone in the grandstand will allow parents to bring their kids to a sensory-friendly place to get away from the crowd and noise and take in the action.

It is not realistic to expect every entertainment venue to accommodate families in this way, but it is important for organizations like NASCAR, movie theater chains and restaurants to know that doing so isn’t just a good deed — it’s also good business. Like all families, we vote with our wallets and spend our limited entertainment dollars where they will bring us the best experiences. Autism-friendly events are business-savvy, and they help develop communities that are inclusive and welcoming for all.

Artie Kempner
Wilmington, Del.

Kempner is the lead director for NASCAR on Fox and a member of the Autism Speaks board of directors.

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