AUSTIN, MINN. – Seven-year-old Kayde Gustafson races into the YMCA gym, grabs a kid-size basketball and puts up a shot at one of the four hoops ringing the court.
Then he goes to the next hoop. And the next. Always in the same order, always the first thing he does at the gym.
“It’s his acclimation routine,” said his dad, Derik.
Kayde has autism. He has trouble connecting with other children at school. But for one Friday night a month, he’s just another kid letting off steam in the gym with friends.
This special “respite night” through Autism Friendly Austin is meant to give parents a break from caring for their autistic children. But from the looks of it, the kids are getting even more out of it than the adults.
“It’s great,” said John Halvorson, dropping off 8-year-old Kirby. “It’s nice to get out. It’s also good for him to get out and mingle with other kids.”
Austin, the southern Minnesota city of 25,000 best known as the home of Spam, has become one of the first cities nationwide to launch a concerted communitywide effort to make itself more welcoming to citizens with autism. The Autism Friendly Austin project has enlisted schools, businesses and residents in working to accommodate people with autism.
“This is one of only a handful of towns in the nation that I have heard of doing this,” said Ellie Wilson, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota. “I think the citywide effort is really special.”
More than 3.5 million Americans are on the autism spectrum, according to the Autism Society of America. One of every 59 children has autism, according to research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Minnesota, it’s estimated that more than 70,000 people have autism, either diagnosed or undiagnosed.
Community chips in
Autism Friendly Austin is a program of the Hormel Historic Home, whose mission includes providing educational opportunities for all people. The home began offering some autism-related programming in 2010, sponsoring summer day camps and other activities for autistic children. Last year, the Hormel Home began exploring the idea of expanding its efforts.
A community task force suggested the goal of making Austin an autism-friendly city. A gift from a former Hormel executive who wishes to remain anonymous allowed the home to hire Mary Barinka last fall as a community autism resource specialist. Barinka, who has a 16-year-old daughter with autism, believes she may be the only person in the country running a comprehensive, citywide autism program.
Barinka’s own experience helping her daughter navigate the world was important in knowing the needs of autistic people and how to make others aware of them.
“It was so hard to take her to activities,” Barinka said. “The pace was too fast. Things were too overwhelming, and the staff didn’t understand her needs.”
In part through autism activities offered by the Hormel Home, Barinka’s daughter has become more skilled at communicating and at being part of a group. This year, she made the school dance team.
So far, the autism program has gotten support from nearly a dozen businesses, who say it’s easy to take part and that it benefits all their customers, not just people with autism.
Dr. Cassie Guy, a local dentist, made her practice autism-friendly by offering all her patients better information and more options.
Autistic people often have heightened sensory perception and may react badly to light, noise and other sensory stimuli. That’s easy to accommodate, Guy said.
“We let people know that we have sunglasses, we have blankets, we have earphones,” she said.
People with autism also usually like routine and don’t like surprises. So Guy’s office put together an illustrated booklet that explains exactly what a patient can expect on their dental visit, right down to pictures of the staff who take the patients from the waiting room to the exam room.
‘Spirit of accommodation’
Autistic people often focus intensely on a topic or a hobby. So the Spam Museum has invited autistic students to make presentations on their areas of interest.
“We had topics ranging from historic cameras to bugs to Matchbox cars,” said Savile Lord, the museum’s executive director. “They set up their own little tables and told our visitors about their areas of interest.”
The museum also has a “Spambassador” who’s a high school student with autism. He coaches the museum on the needs and wants of autistic people, such as a quiet room to retreat to when a situation becomes overwhelming.
“Lots of these things affect our patrons and our customers and the people who walk through our doors,” Lord said. “So for us to be aware of those things and be ready to accommodate them is important.”
Back at the Y, the kids go from the gym to the pool. They’re joyous, splashing and screeching, tossing balls and making up games with floating toys. Trained volunteers are in the pool with them, sharing the fun and gently calming children who get overwhelmed.
Lefranomar Mungia, an energetic 9-year-old with pigtails, holds her toy frog Croakles and gleefully announces that it’s his first time swimming. Then she and Croakles leap in.
Her mother, Patricia Mungia, is one of the volunteers. She said respite night has become a favorite activity for Lefranomar, who is sometimes teased at school because she still has imaginary friends.
“Here, she doesn’t have to worry about anybody making fun of her,” Mungia said. “Here, she fits right in.”
It’s a wonderful change for the little girl. But in Austin, the goal is to help people with autism fit in everywhere — not just with one another.
“What we’re talking about is the spirit of accommodation,” Wilson said. “Whatever your needs are, however you can be included in your community, you have the right to do so.”