Julia, Sesame Street’s New Autistic Character, to Appear at Sesame Place

The newly introduced — and already beloved — Sesame Street character, Julia, will make her debut “live” appearance this Saturday, April 22, at Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

Sesame Place holds their “Autism Awareness” Day event annually, in partnership with Variety, a local charity for children with special needs. As an autism-friendly event, the park will make adjustments to its usual operations, including low-sensory character shows, designated quiet areas and adjustments to noise levels. Julia will be walking around the park, welcoming attendees.

The event runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free for members of Variety. Parking is $25. Check out this link for more information.

Sesame Place officially opens for the season on April 27.

2017 NFL Pro Bowl to Be Autism-Friendly

This Sunday, the NFL’s Pro Bowl will take place in Orlando, Florida. As the location of Disney World, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and more, Orlando is one of the most family-friendly destinations in the U.S. And it’s about to get a little friendlier.

For the first time, this year’s Pro Bowl is striving to be as autism-friendly as possible. This includes sensory tools, a designated quiet room, and specially trained staff to help families. The staff will include both security personnel and Camping World employees, who will learn more about autism and the ways that they may be able to assist autistic families during the game.

Special Sensory Sacks will be available to all families, thanks to efforts by the group A-OK Autism in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which worked closely with the NFL. These sacks will contain a stress ball, noise-cancelling headphones, and a stadium wristband where the wearer’s seating information can be written down in case they get lost. The sacks will also contain a lanyard and badge that a person with autism or other developmental disability can wear to let others know, for example, if they are unable to speak. Of course, the badges can be worn or not worn at the individual’s or family’s discretion.

“Our goal is to make the game as family-friendly as possible,” Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility, told the Orlando Sentinel. “We want to see if this is something the fans take advantage of and, if so, whether we can extend it to the Super Bowl and perhaps share it with the rest of the league.”

The NFL got the idea of an autism-friendly game from the Seattle Seahawks, which has six players on the NFC Pro Bowl Roster. The Seahawks first teamed with A-OK Autism in October 2015. Seahawks General Manager John Schneider and his wife have a child with autism, and they helped institute the same autism-friendly amenities—including the trademarked Sensory Sacks—at Seahawks Stadium then, with much success.

The program will be announced to Pro Bowl attendees on Game Day, and they’ll get instructions on where to go to pick up the Sensory Sacks.

The idea behind this is that there isn’t always a visual way to recognize if someone has autism,” Isaacson said. “And it’s hard for people who aren’t experienced with it to recognize that certain behaviors are part of the autism spectrum. We just want to make sure we’re creating a safe and comfortable and inclusive environment.”

In addition to the Seahawks, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Indianapolis Colts have also been working to make their games and facilities autism-friendly.

This Company Went Above and Beyond to Help an Autistic Child

sippy-cup1

Marc Carter’s 14 year-old son, Ben, has severe autism. Ever since he was two, Ben has insisted on drinking out of the same sippy cup. He simply won’t take his liquids out of any other cup or glass, and has been hospitalized for dehydration in the past because of this. While this rigidity is obviously a problem, the fact that the sippy cup is wearing out is an even bigger problem. So Marc decided to use social media to try to get a replacement supply of the cups to avert a future disaster.

As Marc first explained:

“Ben is 14 and has severe autism, he’s non-verbal and has very little understanding. Since the age of 2 he has drunk exclusively from a little blue Tommee Tippee two handled cup.

Fortunately about 3 years ago we managed to replace this very old and disintegrating cup with a newer one – cup part first, lid a few weeks later. He was suspicious but we survived.

No big deal right? We can just get something else! At that age he should be drinking out of a glass!

You’d think eh. Ben hasn’t drunk at school since the age of 5, he doesn’t drink outside of the house so we can’t go anywhere. People say he will drink when he’s thirsty, but two emergency trips to A&E with severe dehydration say otherwise.

These cups are not made anymore, the replacements are all new and fancy, we’ve tried them, Ben throws them at us. Maybe you have one stuck at the back of a cupboard? It can be used, that’s fine, the one he has doesn’t have long left. In all honesty we are really worried what will happen if it falls apart completely. Can you help us? Please share this far and wide, you can find me on twitter @GrumpyCarer. We will happily pay for the cup and postage, and we would love more than one if we can find them.”

His tweet, with the hashtag #CupForBen, was retweeted more than 1,200 times and his story was spread by major news networks. While many offers of replacements came in, most of them weren’t the right cup, unfortunately. And then Tommee Tippee, the manufacturer of the original sippy cup, stepped up to the plate.

Company staff in Hong Kong, France, the U.S. and Australia looking for the cup in their warehouses eventually found the original mold design. As they explain on their website, the company not only helped coordinate the delivery of cups from people all over the world, they’re also going to produce 500 new cups for Ben to ensure that he never runs out of the only cup he’ll use.

The company said, “It was clear from the beginning that this wasn’t just a cup for Ben, it was a lifeline for him.”

Some U.S. Toys ‘R’ Us Stores to Offer ‘Quiet Hours’

toysrus1A few weeks ago, we shared the news that Toys “R” Us stores in the U.K. would be offering quiet holiday shopping hours this past November 6th, so families of children (and adults) with autism could take them shopping in a sensory-friendly environment. Many of you asked if stores in the U.S. would be doing the same thing. The answer is yes, but not necessarily yours.

While Toys “R” Us corporate announced that, yes, stores in the U.S. would be offering “quiet hours,” they weren’t specific on which stores would actually be participating. That’s because they’re trying to do it on a local level.

As Meghan Sowa, a spokesperson for Toys “R” Us explained, “We’re working on a plan to test these types of opportunities on a local level – pairing our stores with local organizations to create an event for kids with special needs and their families.” While this is too much work to get much accomplished this holiday season, she also said that the toy store giant “will also assess opportunities to scale it nationally.”

The Toys “R” Us in Lafayette, Kentucky, was the first to offer the special event on the morning of Sunday, November 13, from 7-9 a.m. Lights were dimmed, music was low, and no announcements were made. Children could either accompany their parents to pick out toys or make wish lists, or stay in a designated “quiet zone,” where store employees entertained them and colored with them while their parents shopped. Refreshments were provided and store mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe, was available for photo opportunities. The event was a partnership between the Lafayette Toys “R” Us store and local group, Autism Society of Acadiana.

“The pressure to be able to stay and withstand everything going on around us is always a hassle,” one mom explained, about her typical shopping trip. But at the special event, her child was able to run around the store and explore.

“For him to be able to be free and just run and pick what he likes…it was a better experience for me than it was for him,” said another shopping mother about her son. “I think that every [parent] of an autistic child should have this experience… I wish that every Toys “R” Us in the country could do this.”

The Lafayette store has said it hopes to repeat the shopping event in the future. As for other locations offering quiet shopping hours, we recommend that you check with your local store and/or autism organization.

 

Chuck E. Cheese Location Offers Sensory Sundays

chuck-e-cheese1Those of you who have had your child go absolutely ballistic when the Chuck E. Cheese figure came close to the table (raises hand) or the animatronic band started to play up on the stage (yup, that too) will be thrilled to learn that at least one Chuck E. Cheese location is now featuring Sensory Sundays.

The Chuck E. Cheese in Attleboro, Massachusetts, is collaborating with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) to enable children on the autism spectrum to experience the fun of Chuck E. Cheese without the sensory overload.

Sensory Sunday will take place on the first Sunday of each month, between the hours of 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. This is before the game and pizza venue opens to the general public.

Breanna Tanksley, manager of Chuck E. Cheese’s in Attleboro, said: “We are excited to provide a special opportunity every month for sensory sensitive families to enjoy their favorite pizza and games in a safe and friendly environment of tolerance and understanding.”

Other Chuck E. Cheese locations have offered sensory-friendly hours, including the Warwick, Rhode Island, location. We recommend that you check with your local Chuck E. Cheese to see whether they offer something similar, or to start one yourself.

Gatwick Becomes First ‘Autism-Friendly’ Airport

gatwick2Last week, without too much fanfare, Gatwick Airport became the U.K.’s first designated “Autism Friendly” airport. The National Autistic Society is responsible for the presentation of the “Autism Friendly” award to restaurants, businesses, shopping centers, and more. Gatwick received the designation from the NAS, “in recognition of the airport’s commitment to becoming an accessible and friendly environment for autistic passengers.”

In order to earn the label, “Autism Friendly,” Gatwick had to meet a range of criteria that would benefit passengers with autism, along with their families and caregivers. This includes:

  • Providing clear and accessible information about the airport to autistic passengers;
  • Ensuring assistance is available for journey planning and preparation;
  • Training staff so that they’re better equipped to properly assist autistic passengers;
  • Introducing “Autism Champions,” who are trained to further educate and train airport employees, and to provide “enhanced assistance” to passengers who need it;
  • Rolling out initiatives such as the hidden disability lanyard program.

The hidden disability lanyard was introduced this past May, and is an option available for any passenger with hidden challenges, including autism, Alzheimer’s, hearing impairment, and more. While wearing the lanyard is voluntary, those who do discreetly alert airport staff that they may (quoting from Gatwick’s press release):

  • Need more time to process information or more time to prepare themselves at security;
  • Need to remain with family at all times;
  • May react to sensory overload (i.e., be surrounded by too much information);
  • Need staff to use clear verbal language as it may be difficult to understand facial expressions and/or body language;
  • Need staff to be visual with instructions and use closed questions to assist passengers effectively through the airport;
  • Benefit from a more comprehensive briefing on what to expect as they travel through the airport.

As anybody who has travelled with a child with autism likely knows, it’s especially hard when you take a child out of their recognized routine and familiar environment and expose them to the chaos and unpredictability of an airport. Initiatives like this one and Myrtle Beach’s “sensory-friendly quiet room,” go a long way in making it easier for passengers and their families to travel. We look forward to hearing about more airports earning the “Autism Friendly” designation.

This UPS Man Makes Very Special Deliveries

ups3Do you know that giddy feeling that you get when the UPS man drops a package off at your door? Even if you know exactly what’s in it, it can still feel like your birthday. So you’ll understand why 14-year-old Asher Schnitzer loves the excitement of a UPS delivery.

For eight years now, Asher, who has autism, has been on a first-name basis with Mike, the UPS man in his Phoenix neighborhood. And for just as long, he’s been calling Mike every morning to check on his deliveries.

“He asks how many packages there are, what’s in it and stuff and I just tell him you know I have one package and he’ll have to find out what’s in it,” Mike told Fox 10 Phoenix.

If he has a package for Asher, Mike tries to stay a little longer than his typical drop. Asher’s mom Raquel offers for Mike to come in and have some food. If there are no UPS packages for the Schnitzers or their neighbors, Asher asks Mike to drive by and honk. As long as he has time, he does just that.

Because he knows it’s important to Asher, Mike tries to swing by when he can, and he says he doesn’t mind the early-morning calls, either. “I just try to put myself in his shoes and his family’s shoes and all of that and just say hey you know it’s not really that big of a deal to take a phone call or do a little bit of extra, so why not do it,” he said.

“Whether it’s getting a package or the neighbors getting a package or just seeing Mike, that’s enough of a buzz for him that it keeps him going,” said Raquel. And Mike has become like one of the family, even celebrating Hanukkah with them.

Now that’s a pretty special delivery.

Mom Petitions for Autism-Friendly Checkout Lane at Target; Shoprite Answers the Call

sensory-checkout2Every parent knows how annoying the checkout aisles in supermarket and big box stores can be when the kids are shopping with them, no matter if the kids are on the spectrum or not. After all, by the time we get to the checkout, we’re likely frazzled and just hoping that we’ve managed to remember everything we need. When we finally roll our cart to the checkout line, we know we’ve almost made it and it’s just a few minutes until we’re out the door! But there they are—the dreaded gum and candies and toys—more little unnecessary doodads that we don’t want and don’t need.

They’re not just there for us, though—they’re placed there for the kids. Even though they want our kids to be quiet and well-behaved and good-mannered, stores seem to purposefully place this stuff in the line of fire, hoping to eke a few more dollars out of us. Instead, what often happens is that we stand firm, and our kids—who are already cranky from the shopping process—just melt down.

With this in mind, Philadelphia-area mom, Kristin Jackowski, started a petition on Change.org to “encourage Target and other big box-stores to implement autism-friendly checkout lanes.” Kristin has three children, and five-year-old NavyAnna has autism, along with sensory issues. While it may not be a store’s responsibility to “parent” our children, and many people view a child having a meltdown over a toy or piece of candy as a “spoiled brat,” Kristin says that NavyAnna has “poor impulse control,” and the checkout lane causes the most trouble.

People don’t understand, viewing NavyAnna’s meltdown as a simple temper tantrum because she’s not getting her way. “The stares, comments and eye rolls of disgust I could do without, because the situation is already hard enough,” says Kristin. In her petition, Kristin recommends that stores “flip the script and turn this into a positive,” by having sensory-friendly aisles with “sensory input tools parents can actually use” instead of candy. She recommends things like bubbles, Play-doh and stress balls—things that help a child de-stress and self-soothe. She also recommends that cashiers be given some sensitivity training so that they recognize that you “can’t always see a disability.”

Kristin talked to her Target store’s managers and was told that this sort of change needs to come from the corporate office. Philly Mag contacted Target corporate on behalf of Kristin and was told that they were looking into the request.

However, the management of Kristin’s local Shoprite supermarket, which just opened up three weeks ago, heard about her petition and decided it was a fantastic idea. Paul Kourtis, the store’s director, said he didn’t understand at first, and wondered, “what’s the big deal?” So he did some investigating and determined that “one of the most helpful things he could do would be to replace the candy in the checkout with ‘sensory friendly’ items like Play-Doh, rattles, and small puzzles, one of the key changes requested in the petition.”

Paul then checked with the store’s owner, who immediately OK’ed the change. “I just merchandized the aisle correctly with sensory-friendly objects. No candy whatsoever. It was easy to do. We’re happy to do it,” Paul said. The store will also be working with all employees to educate them about autism and sensory issues.

In the meantime, one of their 18 aisles is now “sensory friendly,” and there’s a sign on it to make sure people know. How’s it working out? “People are going crazy for it,” and spreading the word.

Myrtle Beach Airport Opens Sensory-Friendly ‘Quiet Room’

Myrtle Beach Airport2Back in the beginning of 2016, the town of Surfside Beach, South Carolina, made news when it became the first “autism-friendly” travel destination in the U.S. That accomplishment was due, in very large part, to the work of the Champion Autism Network (CAN) in the Surfside Beach area.

Founded in 2012 by Becky Large, CAN is working to spread autism awareness through the community, as well as helping to implement judgment-free zones and overall acceptance.

Today, the Myrtle Beach International Airport, just north of Surfside Beach, officially cut the ribbon on its new sensory-friendly “Quiet Room.” The space is intended for people with autism and special needs who are in need of a place to decompress after their flight. The room is located just off of the baggage claim area, and features cushioned cubicles, pillows and chairs, for people to lie down or just sit and relax.

“This is a wonderful partnership and a victory for families of children with autism who are vacationing in our area,” said CAN’s Becky Large. “This room provides a safe and fun environment for children on the autism spectrum and a caregiver to relax and decompress after a flight while family members retrieve their baggage and rental car.”

In other words, families traveling on to a holiday in Surfside Beach can get their vacation off to a good start in a judgment-free zone, with potentially fewer meltdowns.

And that’s not all. Tyler Servant, the council vice chair of Horry County, which encompasses Myrtle and Surfside beaches, says that the goal is for the entire county to become autism-friendly: “Myrtle Beach area is a great destination for families and by offering these services it was our hope that Horry County would become a place where families that have children on the autism spectrum could come and visit and enjoy their vacation and their time with their families because that is what this area is all about.”

We can’t wait to see more beaches, towns, airports, and entire counties, doing the same.