Why isn’t the world more autism-friendly?

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‘Sesame Place’ Gives Guests a Fun and Inclusive Experience. (Image Credit: The Jersey Momma)

The other day I saw a story stating that back in April of 2018, Sesame Place, the theme-park in Pennsylvania revolving around all things “Sesame Street,” is the first ever and possibly only autism friendly theme park. This term not only refers to the fact that the park has been made accessible for people of different abilities, but comes along with the guarantee that staff members of the park have received specialized training in working with children and adults whose needs may vary from those of the general population. This distinction exemplifies the mindset that family-friendly places and activities should have with regards to catering toward their clientele, but also raises the question: why is this a relatively uncommon certification?

Since the certification was earned by Sesame Place only, one other amusement park has also gained the certification. Aquatica Orlando in Orlando, Fl. received their distinction as a certified autism center just a few weeks ago in the beginning of 2019, making it the first water park in the world to hold the title. While being a certified autism center may sound impressive just from the name alone, the actual requirements that the businesses must go through to gain the certification make it much more than that. According to the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), to become a certified autism center, a business must be dedicated to serving all individuals who carry an autism diagnosis, which includes maintaining certain standards of of National Healthcare and Education Accreditation and complying with HIPAA and ADA requirements. However, what may be even more intensive for the businesses is that at least 80 percent of their staff must also be trained and certified in the field of Autism, and this training must be maintained and renewed every few years.

With all of these requirements, it may not come as a surprise that most large family attractions with hundreds of staff members do not currently hold this certification. However, the benefit of having this distinction, not only to the businesses but to the families as well, far outweighs the cost of having to put staff members through extra training. If anything, this extra training will only serve to benefit employees and make them more experienced in working with children from all backgrounds and abilities.

Autism is one of the leading developmental disorders in the world, with approximately 1 in 59 children in 2018 being diagnosed with the disorder. However, despite the large and growing prevalence of this disorder, the symptoms and effects that autism have vary greatly in all people. Some of the main characteristics of an autism diagnosis are largely based on social and communication deficits, meaning that group situations or large, populated areas such as a theme park may be difficult to navigate for those carrying an autism diagnosis. For this reason, having staff members trained on ways to interact with those with autism may allow for a better experience at one of these locations for both the person and their caregivers.

So, with autism and other developmental disorders being so prominent in children, why are more places not making themselves accessible to all individuals, regardless of whether they carry a special needs diagnosis or not? While the answer likely comes down to the extra time and money that it would take to ensure that businesses are compliant with all of the standards set up by the IBCCES, this answer just does not seem good enough. We are currently living in a world where a large percentage of our population fears what a diagnosis of autism or another developmental disorder may mean for their family. Instead of fearing this, we should be coming up with better ways to accommodate for our loved ones if they are diagnosed with a disorder. Receiving an autism diagnosis does not mean a person requires a cure, it just means that they may require different accommodations or services than someone without that diagnosis. Once we start catering to these differences like Sesame Place and Aquatica Orlando have done, rather than fearing them, our society will be a much more welcoming place for all.


Emma Hungaski is the associate opinion editor  for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.hungaski@uconn.edu.

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