The Village of Rhinebeck, New York, is an Autism Supportive Community, one of just a handful across the country. The effort that began less than a year ago is entering its second phase.
The initiative began with officials from the Anderson Center for Autism, in neighboring Staatsburg, approaching Rhinebeck Mayor Gary Bassett. With an immediate yes from Bassett, the village helped in the formation of an Autism Supportive Community Committee earlier this year, and it took off from there as a collaboration with Anderson. Rhinebeck resident Katy Kollar, whose 19-year-old son Owen is at Anderson, sits on the committee
“The hashtag for this Rhinebeck Supportive Community was Justonething. And that’s all we were asking the businesses to do,” Kollar says. “Now some were already doing just one thing. Some were already doing more than one thing.”
As a committee member, Kollar went to various businesses in the village to secure pledges to do just one thing to support people with autism.
“I was just so overwhelmed by the willingness to support families with children with autism,” Kollar says.
Mayor Bassett says the idea is to ensure that businesses and organizations have received the training and tools that allow them to be more accommodating for the 1 in 59 people on the autism spectrum.
“It wasn’t developing changing your store; it was, do one simple act of kindness, whether it’s lowering your lights, having a sensory kit, to make that available so when somebody comes in, they know that they’re supportive,” Bassett says. “And, as a result of their pledges, they got a sticker to put on their door so when people are walking through the village, they see that this store, this business is supportive of autism awareness within the community. And they know if they go in there they’re going to get the help that they need. Fantastic. I’m overwhelmed with the people who and the organizations that committed to do this.”
Collar gives the example of one of the many businesses that is supportive.
“A number of places in town were already pretty familiar with autism and Anderson. I will say, in particular, Village Pizza, which is one of the pizza places Owen loves to go. They know his order — two slices of pizza, not too hot, and an apple juice. And they just, they were always welcoming right from the very beginning,” says Collar. “And Owen, again, has other behaviors. You can’t touch his plate to take it away so if he’s finished, they know not to try to take it. He likes to throw it out in the garbage himself.”
Kathleen Marshall is director of program services at the Anderson Center for Autism.
“Through research we found Ireland is very supportive of people with autism. We’re learning about Mesa, Arizona becoming a certified destination. So I think there’s pockets of it brewing but, given the amount of people on the spectrum, it’s not many places, really, when you do the math,” Marshall says. “So we’re excited that we think we’re the first community to do this in New York state and perhaps in the Northeast region. But some places may be doing it and we don’t know it.”
Marshall, who led public education forums as part of the effort to have Rhinebeck become an Autism Supportive Community, says the village is incorporating sensory awareness in other ways.
“Be it a parade or Sinterklass or Porchfest that’s coming up, they have established a sensory safe space that will be offered at every one of those community events,” Marshall says. “And the mayor is going to change the application for community events to include sensory safe place. So they’re building it into their infrastructure, which is so important because he’s thinking about sustainability of this.”
And that, says Bassett, is what he’ll address in phase two — sustainability. He’s also looking to create a way so visitors know where to go, a roadmap of sorts, perhaps in a brochure or online. Again, Marshall:
“We want to replicate this,” says Marshall. “We want to go to other communities and help them become supportive because it’s the right thing to do.”
She says Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro set the stage with Think Differently, inspired by his daughter who is on the autism spectrum. He launched the initiative in 2015, seeking to change the way individuals, businesses, organizations and communities relate to their neighbors with all abilities.
“What Rhinebeck is doing is remarkable because it’s saying not only to residents, many of whom feel marginalized, that they are embraced, that they’re not different and that all of us are going to strive to be a more inclusive community, is a remarkable message that I have absolutely no doubt other communities will embrace,” Molinaro says. “We’ll work with Anderson Center to expand the reach in the hopes that other communities in Dutchess take the time to go through really the steps necessary to accomplish this. And we hope that it’s a model for the country, that more and more think to choose differently.”
Rhinebeck Sergeant Peter Dunn says his police department participated in Anderson training with other village employees in July.
“So basically we all got the training, all got certified, and then, shortly after that, the police department implemented sensory kits. So basically what we learned was types of earphones, like you use for firearms training, and also a squeeze toy, and we call it Bert. It’s formed in a, like a police officer and it’s a rubber squeeze toy,” says Dunn. “So we’ve run up on at least one incident where we’ve used it already, a car accident, for an example, is what happened. And the officer gets there and realizes this a car accident, there’s nobody seriously hurt, but it’s a lot of noise, you have sirens and the cars and tow trucks and other vehicles. So we gave the child the sensory earphones to use, and it worked.”
He says every police car in the village has a sensory kit.