Meredith and Brian Lively used to have difficulty finding restaurants and other public venues where they felt comfortable taking their autistic son.
“It’s hard going in places because you are afraid you’ll get judged,” Meredith Lively said of the disapproval families can encounter when their autistic children behave in nonconventional ways.
But for the Marlborough couple, whose son, Joey is now 11, the problem has been eased due to the Autism Alliance’s new initiative that trains and certifies businesses and nonprofits in how to be “Autism Welcoming.”
By consulting the Alliance website’s listing of certified organizations, the Livelys and other families of autistic children can choose from among a growing number of restaurants and other establishments committed and equipped to meet their special needs. That can mean providing their child with noise-canceling headphones or seating the family in a quiet area.
“We’ve visited a lot of them,” Meredith Lively said of the certified places. Without them, “We wouldn’t be enjoying family activities.”
“It allows Joey and our family to experience things that would be difficult in the typical situation you go through,” said Brian Lively.
About 1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One of seven state-designated autism support centers in Massachusetts, the Alliance annually provides information, education, resources, and programming to about 2,500 families. In 2009, it merged with Advocates, a Framingham-based social service agency that supports people who face developmental, mental health, or other life challenges.
The “Autism Welcoming” initiative, which the Alliance believes to be the only one of its kind in the state, began in 2019 but has since been fine-tuned and is now moving into a full launch.
While its service region is the broad MetroWest, the Alliance is offering training statewide. To date, 33 places have been certified, including recently the seafood plant Ipswich Shellfish Co. and the Dave & Buster’s restaurant in the Natick Mall. Others range from Apex Entertainment in Marlborough to the Trustees of Reservations’ Weir River Farm in Hingham; Milford Regional Medical Center’s emergency department; and the Topsfield Fair.
The Alliance’s codirectors, Allison Daigle and Pamela McKillop, said they created the initiative to help relieve the stress families face visiting a public place with an autistic child.
“For families who have a child with autism, it can be very isolating,” said McKillopp, who like Daigle is a parent of an adult on the spectrum. “Families a lot of times do not go into the community because they are concerned how their child will be accepted. Any behavioral issue — it could be just making a little noise — people might not be accustomed to” and react negatively.
“So we felt if we were able to train businesses and have them make some accommodations, have them become autism-welcoming, then families would know this and be willing to take a chance to go out and bring their loved one,” McKillop added.
Jeff Keilson, senior vice president of Advocates, said the initiative also is “about getting the broader community more engaged in supporting people with autism, being aware of autism.” It also advances a broader goal of supporting family caregivers.
The training consists of a 60- to 90-minute presentation by Daigle and McKillop that offers a basic introduction to autism and then specific guidance on how to meet the needs of those on the spectrum.
The presentation, customized for each workplace, is often videotaped so that staff unable to attend can view the training later. To help cover its costs, the Alliance charges fees to participating organizations. The program also has received grants from the Becker Family Trust and the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism.
Each certified business receives a tool kit with materials to help them adjust their accommodations. Those can include headphones, sunglasses to shield children from bright lights, stress-reducing fidget items, and lanyards holding cards with images a non-verbal child can point at to express needs, such as wanting a particular food.
Other changes certified workplaces are making to accommodate families of children on the spectrum include identifying relatively quiet areas to seat them and offering a low-sensory environment during specified hours each month.
“We work with the businesses to see what works for them,” Daigle said.
Brian Lively said a simple accommodation businesses can make is “being patient in asking what the family’s needs are, like ‘What can we do to make today easier, what expectations do you have today?’”
Daigle said the program also benefits the certified businesses because families with an autistic child may be more likely to visit them. The Alliance provides each certified organization with Autism Welcoming decals and signs to post at their premises, and pins for staff to wear.
The Natick Dave & Buster’s decided to participate in the certification program after learning about it last fall when the restaurant and arcade hosted one of the Alliance’s periodic special events for families with autistic children.
“We are obviously a pretty big place and there can be a loud, vibrant kind of overwhelming energy here sometimes,” said Josh Featherstone, general manager of the location. “The opportunity to learn how we can be more accommodating to people who might find this kind of environment challenging appealed to us.”
The restaurant’s managers and department leaders undertook the training in person Feb. 16, and all other staff watched a videotape of the presentation afterward.
Dave & Buster’s already had a chance to make use of the insights and the materials it received through the program at a special vacation week event it hosted Feb. 21 for families served by the Alliance. Featherstone said the knowledge and resources also will guide the business in its future interactions with families who have children on the spectrum.
“We want to be as welcoming as we can for everyone who visits us,” he said.
Ipswich Shellfish Co. decided to seek the certification both to educate its staff — including those who work in its retail shellfish market — about autism and to help inspire the restaurants it supplies to become certified.
“As a food sales company, we have lots of contacts and connections with the restaurant industry,” said Andrea O’Donnell, the company’s sustainability coordinator. “Our main goal with this is to increase awareness about autism and promote an overall more inclusive environment.”
“We want to make restaurants more inclusive of guests with different needs,” said Chrissi Pappas, Ipswich Shellfish’s owner. “We hope to help make them places where all parents will feel comfortable taking their children.”
Pappas, who participated in the training, said she was impressed by the presentation. “We felt their passion. We want to do whatever we can to help the Alliance accomplish its goals.”
Brian Lively said he is encouraged by the growing list of businesses attaining certification.
“Like every other family, we want our child to be able to go out and enjoy a good time,” he said.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.