Feature Article - October 2008
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All-Access Recreation

Going Beyond ADA to Meet All Needs

By Stacy St Clair

Recreation & Autism

As the garden proves, just because someone can physically access your facility, that doesn't mean they can fully enjoy it. Progressive recreation managers have begun training their employees on how to assist and communicate with autistic patrons. The training is becoming increasingly important as autism diagnoses climb at an alarming rate. Today, one in 150 individuals is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.

Autism impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others. It is also associated with rigid routines and repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively arranging objects or following very specific routines. Symptoms can range from very mild to quite severe, which means there's no one-size-fits-all recreation service for families with autistic members.

"You need to make sure you train your staff, not only in communication but also about sensory environments. Everyone with autism is different," said Dennis Debbaudt, the Autism Society of America's chief safe and sound consultant and the father of a 25-year-old son with autism. "Some are negatively affected by loud noises, others by bright lights and colors. There's no catch-all for everyone. It's best to talk to the individual families to find out the special needs of that person with autism."

Deb baudt, however, recognizes that identifying patrons' needs can be difficult because it's impossible to tell if a person has autism simply by looking at them. He recommends putting a line in printed materials and on the agency Web site that encourages parents to inform the staff of any children with special needs.

Flexibility can mean the difference between a good visit and an unhappy one, experts say. The more staff members know about autism, the easier it will be for everyone involved. Autistic children may not understand the lifeguard's role, for example, so they may not immediately respect the guard's authority.

"Certainly a lot of kids with autism love water, like most people do," Debbaudt said. "Lifeguards would need to ramp up your their eyes in that situation."

A little patience and strong communication with parents can eliminate potential problems. Likewise, slight adjustments in lighting or sound systems may go unnoticed among most patrons, but the minor changes may make a huge difference to someone with autism.

None of these things can happen, though, unless the facility has open lines of communication between the staff and patrons. Recreation managers must reach out to the community and ask patrons how they can best serve their needs.

"The ADA doesn't require disclosure, but common sense does," Debbaudt said. "They need to let you know who they are and what they require. The more information you can get from families before they visit the better able you are to adapt programs."