The idea of Autism Friendly Spaces was conceived over a series of conversations and many Café Americanos, by Jamie Bleiweiss and Donia Fahim. Both had worked in clinical practice and as university professors specializing in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and had seen a growing need for everyday community spaces to become accessible, accepting, and welcoming to the ASD community. Jamie and Donia shared their idea to start an organization dedicated to making this happen with their friend and colleague, Gizem Tanol, who gladly came on board.
Time and time again Donia, Jamie, and Gizem would hear from individuals with ASD and their caregivers about their challenges in doing everyday things. One parent, Sara, lamented, “No problem when he is at home, and things are even ok on the bus now, but the hairdressers? Going out for dinner as a family? That’s only a dream”. Professionals they spoke to shared similar sentiments. Kim, an autism specialist commented, “It can be a real challenge going places with my student. When we go to the museum and he has a meltdown or if has difficulty waiting on line at the food court in the mall, at least I can explain to others what’s happening and provide the necessary supports to help him get through it. But what happens when there isn’t someone like me there to provide support? Sadly, there seems to be a tremendous lack of understanding out there, and far too few people who know what to do and how to support these individuals.”
Now imagine a world where a parent like Sara didn’t have to explain her child’s behavior to everyone, where she didn’t feel chastised by people staring and misjudging her ‘poor parenting skills.’ What if there was a place where the staff received training on ASD and could readily assist service providers like Kim if she experiences difficulty with her student? Where getting a hair cut or going through airport security was made slightly simpler and more straightforward. A place where individuals with ASD are supported through the use of visual supports and an informed and sensitive staff to help them understand the hidden social rules and expectations that can often be quite elusive and hard for them to grasp. Think of the powerful impact this could have for so many families touched by autism.
Parents like Sara and service providers like Kim are doing their part to prepare their loved ones and the students they work with, by teaching them the necessary skills to enable them to function in the world. But they now need the world to meet them halfway.
Rising to the challenge to meet this great need, the Autism Friendly Spaces team knew they needed to directly approach shops, museums, zoos, airlines, dentists, in fact any place an individual with autism would want or need to frequent, to help increase their understanding of ASD, and to make their spaces more accessible and accommodating for the autism community.
Not starting by any means small, the first project the AFS team took on was to collaborate with the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) on the first ever autism friendly performance of a Broadway show. Jamie was contacted by Deb Stein from TDF, who proposed that AFS work with TDF on an autism theatre initiative. They readily agreed, and on October 2, 2011, history was made when over 1600 individuals in the autism community attended a special performance of Disney’s The Lion King.
The resounding success of this event marked an important accomplishment for the autism field, as it shed light on the ever-present, yet virtually unmet need within this growing community to have more opportunities to enjoy valued activities such as going to the theatre. Deb was sold on the idea of Autism Friendly Spaces, and came onboard as a fourth co-founder. AFS has since played an instrumental role in the successful execution of autism friendly performances of other hit Broadway shows, including Disney’s Mary Poppins, Elf The Musical, and Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.
Within the first two years, Autism Friendly Spaces has generated a proven track record of opening doors for the autism community, working with an array of small businesses and service providers, as well as with prominent cultural institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. In 2013 both Gizem and Deb left AFS. Deb rededicated herself to her acting career. Gizem continues to be a staunch supporter of AFS, as she prepares to step into her new role as Executive Director of the Tohum Autism Foundation in Turkey. AFS continues to grow strong under the direction of Jamie and Donia.