Most public spaces aren’t designed with people with autism in mind. Unfortunately, there are few places that this is more evident than amusement parks, cinemas, and theaters — places intended for entertainment and quality time with family.
Picture the entrance to Disney World, or Universal Studios: Bright, colorful, blinking lights surround the entrance sign. Dramatic orchestral music radiates from speakers in every possible direction: building walls, the sky, the ground. Thousands of people swat at one another with sweaty arms for a place in line. It’s overwhelming for most people.
Now imagine also dealing with sensory sensitivity — one of the most common symptoms of autism. Noise is louder. Lights are brighter. Touch is more potent. At its worst, it can be like being trapped inside the THX opening. Sensory sensitivity can make a somewhat hectic environment into something physically painful and emotionally overpowering. Children with autism often have trouble putting this feeling into words, meaning that they may shout or cry.
But public spaces don’t have to be this way — at least, not all the time. Over the past several years, private schools for children with autism and organizations like Autism Speaks have been organizing inclusive events at theaters and amusement parks that children with autism can enjoy with their families. One of the most notable examples is Autism Day at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, organized by The Gersh Academy. It’s not just a New Jersey event: families travel from all across the country to have the experience.
For the most part, Autism Day is precisely like any other day at Six Flags. There are only two crucial differences: at three different areas — beside the water in the “Fantasy Forest,” the carousel, and the cafe — there are decompression tents, or “quiet areas.” If a child gets upset or just needs a break, these areas are shaded respites from the rest of the park, complete with iPads and small, sensory friendly pools.
But perhaps more importantly, the event includes only children with autism, their families, and teachers trained to help children with autism. Yes, for “Autism Day,” this point seems rather obvious. But the distinction is important. It’s what makes the event more than a regular day at Six Flag with amenities for children with autism.
The biggest obstacle to people with autism and their families face in public spaces often isn’t a lack of amenities: it’s cruelty from other people and families. As the older sister of a brother who has autism, it’s an experience I understand intimately.
When ignorant strangers see a child with autism scream or cry, some will glare at the family, even the child. Occasionally, a person will approach the parents, berate them, ask why they don’t have better control over their child. But instances like this make up a small fraction of a time that a family spends in public. The most frequent and more painful reactions come during normal moments, when the child isn't upset and the family is generally happy. Some people will whisper and stare at families for no apparent reason — as if they don’t believe that the family has the right to exist in public space. Thankfully, very few people behave this way. But even one person is too many.
In an ideal world, “Autism Days” would not have to exist. Quiet, relaxing areas would be a common amenity in public and private space. People with and without autism would coexist without hesitation or judgement. But for now, Autism Days are living proof that there are vast networks of people who love and care about children with autism. For parents with carefree, polaroid-tinted memories of the amusements parks from their childhood, it’s a chance to share those memories with their own children. And for children with autism, it’s just a bright, happy day of summer.
— Caroline Haskins
Hear interviews with children, parents, and the founder of The Gersh Academy on The Outline World Dispatch. Listen later on your favorite app or device below.