In October, The Durango Herald reported on the new open gym for kids with autism at Durango Gymnastics. The open gym is an excellent example of parents working with public entities or private businesses to create accommodating spaces for people with autism.
These spaces are an important step toward full inclusion for people with disabilities. What if our next step developed spaces where we could all share a space that was supportive to everyone?
A popular cartoon about disabilities shows a group of kids waiting to enter the school building while the janitor clears snow off the steps. A girl in a wheelchair sits at the bottom of the neighboring ramp. The janitor is telling the girl in the wheelchair that if she’ll wait for him to clear the steps for the other kids, he’ll get to the ramp. The girl responds, “But if you shovel the ramp, we can all get in!”
That sentiment rings true in so many situations where designing to include people with disabilities benefits everyone. I’m using a perfect example to write this column. My computer keyboard is the granddaughter of the typewriter, which was originally invented by Pellegrino Turri in the early 19th century for a blind woman who wanted to write more legible letters to her friends. Curb cuts aid many a cyclist, ramps help parents with strollers and the technology of the eye-gaze tracking used by Stephen Hawking has morphed into an aid to waken sleepy drivers.
When places like the open gym create a supportive space for people with autism, they dial down the sensory input – lower lighting, limited noise, fewer people. This helps lessen the sensory overload people with autism and others with sensory sensitivities find unbearable.
Though people with autism experience it to the extreme, anyone can be subject to sensory overload. Symptoms of sensory overload may include fatigue, restlessness, mental and muscular tension, anger and irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Overstimulation has been linked to anxiety and depression. If these just sound like symptoms of modern living, perhaps you see where I am headed.
The triggers that make it necessary for people with autism to find spaces outside the mainstream (noise, crowds, bright and artificial lighting, too much incoming information or stimulation) are potentially detrimental to all of us. The stress hormones created by overstimulation wreak havoc on our health.
People with autism will attest to the fact that those triggers are everywhere.
Kudos to the parents who inspired the open gym and to the city of Durango for responding. Now, let’s learn from the example of what these kids need. Let’s “clear the ramp first” and create spaces where kids (and adults) with and without autism can thrive together.
Tara Kiene is president and CEO of Community Connections Inc.