Amy Azano | Creating accessible experiences for children with autism
March 3, 2019
When her kids were young, Amy Azano avoided most events because her son, as a child with autism spectrum disorder, found them too loud and bright and crowded. Then, one day, Azano’s family attended a football game in a private box. The quieter, more controlled setting enabled her son to enjoy a game for the first time.
Years later, that experience inspired Azano, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech School of Education, to found SAFE: Supporting Autism Friendly Environments. Based in the Center for Autism Research, the program broadens access to entertainment for children with autism and their families by taking into account those with sensory challenges and related anxieties.
“Outings that most children find fun—trick-or-treating, miniature golf, a trip to the movie theatre—can be overwhelming or even terrifying for those with autism,” says Azano. “Yet with simple and creative interventions, those same activities can become accessible and enjoyable.”
Azano and the rest of the SAFE team work with local partners to make events more soothing. A movie theatre will lower the sound and raise the lights to avoid total darkness, while a shopping mall will mute sounds and dim lights.
Some events provide access to a quiet room to enable retreats from the crowd, while others allow the children to preview attractions before opening hours. Hokie BugFest, Virginia Tech’s annual celebration of creepy crawlers, for example, offers an advance viewing of a flea circus.
“There’s more than one way to experience the world,” says Azano. “Interventions for children with autism are often designed to teach them how to interact in social settings. People with autism are constantly trying to negotiate their sensitivities to navigate through life. SAFE raises awareness that the world can be malleable, too. The world can bend toward the person with autism; the adjustments don’t have to move in just one direction.”