Community Inclusion for Autistic People - Ideas and Options - Autism Awareness
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Community Inclusion for Autistic People – Ideas and Options

Community inclusion is best described as when there is an opportunity within a community for all its members to live, work, contribute and participate without barriers or obstacles to do so. In an inclusive community each person has their individual needs and differences not only accommodated, but celebrated and valued. Community inclusion means that every person should be treated as full members of their community. Being a part of one’s community supports happiness and well-being, gives a sense of belonging, and adds to a person’s quality of life.

Autistic children will grow up and become adults who need access to recreation, sports, the arts, employment, housing, social programs, and a variety of services. Not being included can lead to social isolation, loneliness, and depression.

A recent study about autistic adults and loneliness found:

a lack of social relationships is often associated with loneliness, and difficulties with social interaction/communication and difficulties with social participation have been commonly reported in autistic adults (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Myers et al., 2015). Second, once people grow up and are no longer in the mandatory social setting of school, the workplace could be a major source of social interaction preparation. Yet, research has consistently shown that autistic people have lower rates of employment than other disability groups (Office for National Statistics, 2021). Finally, support services for autistic individuals significantly decrease when they reach adulthood, with many autistic adults and their carers not being well informed about the social supports that are available to them (Anderson et al., 2018).

For community participation to be successful, supports and accommodations may need to be put into place to make an activity inclusive and accessible. Some examples of accommodations are using visual supports, having small group or private instruction, teaching skills in alternative ways such as video modelling, accessibility options, and offering breaks or quiet spaces. Staff should be trained and supported to include autistic people. When the staff is anxious about inclusion, it is often due to fear of the unknown.

Learning New Things with More Support

It may be helpful to start with a specialized program before moving to an inclusive experience because specialized programs often have more staff support, smaller class sizes, and instructional steps that move more slowly. Once skills are achieved and the autistic person feels comfortable, the inclusive experience may be more satisfying. If the autistic person is lacking the prerequisite skills, the inclusive experience can be frustrating and difficult.

If you want to start with the inclusive experience, look for beginner courses or programs that are designed to be universally accessible. For example, when I wanted to start figure skating in my 40s, I chose an Adult Learn to Skate class that provided a lot of support. I later moved to a figure skating club that offered private and group instruction once I had some of the basic skating skills. My daughter took an art class at a community studio that offered small group classes with flexible, individualized instruction and a “work at your own pace” atmosphere.

My autistic children take an adapted fitness course offered through the city with a small group of people who have a variety needs such as a health condition, injury, or physical disability. The workout is designed by a trained instructor who circulates around the room to provide support when needed.

Preparation is the Key to Success

Before starting any program, try and do the following:

  • Check out the facility ahead of time to become familiarized with it. Ask for a tour and what services are offered.
  • Take pictures of the place and staff to use as visual reminders or for the visual schedule.
  • Know the accessibility options – parking, public transportation, private dressing rooms if they are needed.
  • Meet the staff involved with the program ahead of time.
  • Meet with the instructor to discuss the person’s needs and accommodations.
  • Consider taking a few private lessons to build skills in order to participate fully. My son takes African drumming lessons privately and now participates in community drum circles because he knows all of the basic rhythmic patterns.  My daughter is learning how to play squash with a private instructor.
  • Know the expectations of the activity and if it will be a fit.
  • Find activities that expand on a person’s interests and passions.

Our Family Experience

We’ve done many different activities to help our children grow, remain healthy, learn new skills, and be part of the community. Here are some of the things we’ve done over the years:

  • Group general music classes
  • Community art classes
  • Private lessons in drumming, squash, curling, yoga, and puppeteering
  • Small group instruction for swimming lessons and gymnastics
  • Special Olympics for bowling
  • Adapted fitness and yoga classes offered through the city
  • Volunteering with the autism society, a cat charity, the library, movie theatre, and a local farmer’s market to gain work experience
  • Library programs
  • Specialized cooking classes, dance classes, computer classes, and horseback riding
  • Private tutoring

We’ve used a mix of options to make the experience the best it can be. Sometimes we start in a specialized setting and then move to a more inclusive one once the skills are learned. There are also opportunities to participate in wider experiences. For example, my son is doing so well in therapeutic horseback riding that he will soon be able to participate in shows. He also loves to sing and is invited every year to be in the Christmas group number at a voice studio that my husband accompanies at. My daughter made so many paintings in her art class that she was offered a show in a local café to sell her artworks.

Inclusive programs may not always be able to live up to the definition for various reasons. There are many methods and ideas for helping community organizations and the people they serve come closer to the ideal. Education and acceptance are two big pieces. Community inclusion is important because everyone needs to feel like they belong. Autistic people can bring significant gifts to community settings. All members of society benefit from interacting with a wide range of people who think and act differently. The world is a diverse place and neurodiversity is a big part of it.

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