It has often been said that the quality of our lives is largely determined by the quality of our relationships. While we all understand the importance of cultivating connections within our families and with friends and colleagues, we sometimes overlook the significance of our relations with our communities.
For most of us, the relationships come in many forms. From coffee houses to clothing shops, from parks to places of worship, opportunities to experience a sense of belonging abound — and we embrace them without giving their role in our lives a second thought. However, for people with autism and their families, those connections can be hard to come by. Marked by social, behavioral, and communication challenges, autism is a neurological disorder that can make the one in 59 diagnosed feel completely overstimulated in these types of “mainstream” community environments. Those on the spectrum, along with their families and caregivers, often find it impossible to engage in community life — choosing to stay home in lieu of trying to adapt to atmospheres that are not at all designed to meet their needs.
Here in Dutchess County, however, the doors to high-quality relationships with communities for individuals with autism and their families are opening wide. At a recent meeting on an autumn day in the Village of Rhinebeck, public officials, businesspeople, volunteers, and representatives from Anderson Center for Autism gathered to begin planning an initiative that has promise of serving as a model for communities throughout the country and beyond. The project: the Village of Rhinebeck will be working to earn designation as an Autism Supportive Environment, which essentially means that it will, in coming months, be engaging in consultations and trainings with Anderson Center for Autism to ensure that businesses, organizations, and places of worship in the Village have the expertise needed to become more autism-friendly. By asking every single entity in the village to pledge to do just one thing to make life easier for the customers, visitors, and employees with autism — as well as their families — the village will be the first municipality in the Hudson Valley region to earn this recognition.
As Rhinebeck gets underway with this program, thanks in part to The Thomas Thompson Trust, we’ll be reaching out (and welcoming outreach) from communities throughout the entire region. Yes, for us, the holiday wish is simple: to gain invitations to meet with every municipality who sees the benefits of this initiative.
If you’re not convinced already, let me share a few reasons to become an Autism Supportive Environment. For one thing, by arming community members with the information needed to better understand and support those who have autism, they will be better-positioned to keep them safe from harm; many children, especially, tend to elope (escape) when they feel overwhelmed by a situation. Some don’t understand basic safety rules when crossing a street. If people in the community know to watch for this, they can potentially save a life.
There are economic reasons as well. By engaging an entire community in learning how to be more inclusive for people on the spectrum, transactions can be more easily made, tourism can expand, jobs can be filled; ultimately, a stronger financial future can be secured for an entire community.
Perhaps the best reason, however, is this: a more inclusive community means a culture of kindness and compassion, which means better quality of relationships between people with autism, their families, and communities. Indeed, a greater quality of life for everyone.