An Autism-Friendly City: A Sensory Garden for Parents

What is an autism-friendly city?  

UPDATE:  (7/2/17)

Here is a nice example of a pictorial social story type introduction to a place (the Riverwalk)in Tampa, FL, developed by University of South Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.  They have plans to do a similar presentation for other local destinations. 

I especially love the sensory symbols that warn or advise that smellables, tastables or touchables may be present. Imagine if every city did this! Kudos to USF-CARD!  

Tampa Riverwalk.  

Here is info on the Mayors Initiative for an Autism-Friendly Tampa

****original blogpost below*****

Thanks to @TrishaKatkin , I came across an interesting article about a town in Northern Ireland, trying to use city planning techniques to make their town an autism-friendly tourist destination.  Autism Initiative NI  is the major charity that has helped develop these initiatives.

What kind of changes could make a place, an entire town, more autism-friendly?  And what exactly does autism-friendly mean, anyway?

These are some of the features that Newcastle NI tried to incorporate to make the town autism-friendly:

Autism-Friendly is a Feeling of Welcome

  • Feels like home
  • Welcoming
  • Valuing my contribution
  • Caring about me and for me
  • Nonjudgmental
  • Inclusive
  • “Autism-friendly, not autism only.” (Grainne Close, The Northern Ireland National Director for Autism Initiatives, above.)

Autism-Friendly is Quality of Life

  • Availability of Supported housing
  • Soothing Environmental Features
  • Accessibility for both Tourism and Local Employment Purposes

Autism-Friendly is Sensory Awareness in Provision of Services and Employment

  • Willingness to adapt businesses and amenities for better service/employee experience
  • Reduction in Ambient Noise
  • Reduction in Length of Queues
  • Availability of Accessible Nighttime Entertainment for Individuals and Families

Closer to home

If you are the parent of a child with autism or other developmental disability, you are probably packing your bags to go, right now.  Believe me, I’d love to come along.

But wait.  Why couldn’t we make our own towns more autism-friendly?  Isn’t that part of the problem with autism, that so often our children seem like strangers in a strange land?

I remember when my son was struggling in speech therapy, I couldn’t help but think of my own struggle to communicate in a second language, in a foreign country.  I was constantly surrounded by competent, skilled practitioners of the language, putting me to shame.  Preschool children could speak better than me!

Admittedly, the feeling of being the outsider, the other, was self-induced. No one wanted to make me feel that way.

And it is no different now.

As I try to take normal family vacations, or weekend trips, or just simple field trips or outings, the feeling returns. I am constantly on edge, wondering what it will be this time, what new shame, what new height of embarrassment.  I am aware of our difference, the extra trouble we cause, the spectacle we create.

We are social beings and we all long for acceptance. We long to blend in.  What if people didn’t have to bend over backwards for us, because things were already geared, with our needs in mind, to make life easy.  The problems we so often experience might not arise at all.

Small Changes Reap Large Benefits

Imagine a hotel room that comes equipped with a waterproof bed, that neither soils nor spills can harm.

Now I no longer need to pack extra bedding nor lug it home.

Imagine walls and ceilings that are thick and sound proof.

Now my son’s pacing at night and mumbling to himself disturbs no one.

Imagine an adult-sized cloth swing, a small trampoline, and a sensory play area included in the room, perhaps in a sheltered alcove.

Now my son can be alone but safe and move without disturbing anyone.  He has a quiet place to take the edge off.

Imagine in that alcove, a supply of crafts and activities, prepackaged and available, refreshed daily.

Now he has something to do in this strange place.  I don’t have to create an exhaustive itinerary in the hope of keeping him occupied.  Because lack of occupation can spell TANTRUM.

Imagine snacks and meals included.

Now I don’t have to plan how I’m going to feed everyone.  Midnight snacks, should my son need them, don’t need to be packed.

Imagine quality respite care and first aid, including behavioral experts, available at no cost, as needed.

Even if some emergency arises, I know we will be fine.  Now I can go to dinner with my husband, alone.  I can spend time with my other children. I can relax.


As the parent of a child with autism, I find reading about this Northern Irish town to be soothing. Like an oatmeal bath.  When you have a bad case of the chicken pox.  Delightful, full of simple pleasures, like a sensory garden…

By the way, they’re building one of those in Newcastle, Northern Ireland, too.

What if…?

What if people with autism and their families didn’t have to adapt?

Instead, everyone else did.    Businesses, governments, amusement parks, all aspects of civilization, basically.

Now that sounds like a town I want to live in.


Have you seen any examples of “autism-friendly” in your town or in your travels? What would you like to see? Comment below!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrea LeDew says:

    Just found this article. Hotels are already designing rooms considering needs of children with autism in Newfoundland.

    1. Andrea LeDew says:

      The comment above is actually from me!

The foregoing is merely my opinion. Feel free to comment or correct me below!