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  • Writer's pictureEmily Bruce

How Can We Make our Communities More Welcoming for Individuals with Special Needs and Autism?

Nearly one in five school-aged children in the United States has a disability, and yet

businesses and other organizations often do not know how to make their environments more inclusive for these children and their families. Research suggests that a lack of supportive environments may leave parents feeling isolated from the community thereby having a

negative impact on both parents and their children, Caregivers whose communities are not supportive experience higher levels of stress and lower rates of involvement in the community compared with families who have typically developing children. The social inclusion model suggests that people are not disabled by their body or mind, but rather by social exclusion, unequal access, and other barriers, and that those who are able and willing to make contributions should make contributions to help those who may not otherwise have access to participate fully in society.

Our environment is central to our ability, and true inclusion, creating meaningful experiences and opportunities for everyone, means providing supports that are research-based and allow for community participation in all aspects of life. These experiences are not just about a child or individual tolerating an outing but rather it’s about providing learning opportunities for skill building and future engagement with the community. To do this, we need to begin promoting and creating inclusive environments that provide opportunities for belonging. Here are a few suggestions to begin building a supportive business:

1. Understand the needs of individuals or families with autistic children or have a special need,

2. Make changes to your business policies and practices and make reasonable accommodations,

3. Train your employees on how to best serve individuals or families with autistic children or have a special need,

4. Offer resources and support to families who visit your business,

5. Spread awareness about autism and its effects on families,

6. Advocate for better services and support for individuals with autism and special needs and their families.

The best way to begin the process is to find programs that can support and train staff and volunteers such as Vanderbilt’s All Access Inclusion Network here in Nashville. Fortunately, there are things you can begin doing today to help you become more supportive of individuals with autism or special needs, and their families, and to create a welcoming space for everyone!

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