Insight into the specific needs of autistic people

Autism-Europe is a liaison for roughly 90 autism organisations across 38 countries. Tim Kridel asks its director Aurélie Baranger how organisations can use technology to deliver better environments for people with autism.

TK: What’s the preferred way refer to people with autism? “People on the autism spectrum”? “People with autism”? “People who have autism”? Something else? 

AB: There is still no absolute consensus on the best term to use at the international level. In Anglo Saxon countries, such as in the UK, the preferred term has been established as being “autistic people”. At Autism-Europe we have tended more and more towards using this term. It is also perfectly fine to say “person on the autism spectrum”. You can have a look at our acceptable language guideline for more information.

TK: Bristol Airport’s autism friendly award and Morrisons Quieter Hour are two recent examples of how some retailers, airports and other businesses are trying to accommodate customers, employees and other people who have autism. Does this seem to be a trend? If so, what’s driving it? 

AB: Fortunately we have indeed seen growing number of initiatives to make public spaces, services and businesses autism-friendly (although there is still a long way to go). Although we cannot determine the exact reason for this growing move to reasonably accommodate autistic needs, we could surmise that a few things might be at play here:

• A growing awareness of what autism is and what things are likely to make an experience potentially traumatic for an autistic person;

• A growing appreciation of the talents many autistic workers have, and how employers can harness their contributions in various work settings;

• A pragmatic approach based on the fact that, with an estimated 1% of people on the autism spectrum, it makes real business sense to welcome autistic people in their families (in supermarkets, airports etc.)

TK: What are some technological tips and best practices for businesses that want to make their stores, offices, restaurants, theme parks, etc. better environments for people with autism? For example, airports have loud public address systems and a lot of digital signage, which can bother people with sensory issues. How can they balance the need for those systems (e.g., to help all passengers navigate the airport) with the sensitivity that some passengers might have? 

• Technology is helpful, but it is important to always have a member of staff there to offer face-to-face guidance and support if needed.

• To assist in orientation, the use of easy-to-read instructions in simple language accompanied by pictograms for those people who also have learning disabilities.

• Flexibility to reduce queuing times, and avoid physical contact in things like security check at the airport.

• Designated and easy to find quiet spaces for time out, where an autistic person can go to escape overstimulating sensory surroundings. These spaces should be quiet, and have low sensory lighting, minimal colouring and not be located near to any place with strong odours if possible (such as a canteen, kitchen, bins or toilets).

• Trained staff who know about autism, and how to assist an autistic person or their family if support is needed.

• We often talk about “reasonable accommodation” for a work place etc. This really means not making standard changes to a work environment using a “one size fits all” approach. It is about talking with the autistic employee to see what things they require. Each person is different. One person might require soft lighting for their sensory issues, whereas for another person their reasonable accommodation needs might include assistance in organising their work tasks and approaching their colleagues. 

TK: If a company that designs and installs AV systems in stores, malls and other public places wants to help its clients accommodate people with autism, where could they turn for advice? For example, where can they learn more about how people with autism are affected by AV technologies and how to design those technologies to provide a good experience? 

AB: For such specialist advice, the best people to advise are often those on the autism spectrum themselves. For Autism-Europe's last International Congress in Edinburgh, autistic consultants where hired to help make the venue autism friendly. They were contacted by the congress co-organisers the National Autistic Society (UK). 

You can hear more from Baranger in a wider article on how AV technologies can be used to accommodate people with a range of specific needs in the article:  Why using AV to support people with autism makes a lot of sense

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