When you think about autism, says Kathy Kollar, whose 19-year-old son Owen is autistic, don’t think about “Rainman.”
The popular film, in which Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant, doesn’t portray the typical experience, Kollar said.
“My son is minimally verbal,” she said. “He can have meltdowns.”
That is what the village of Rhinebeck’s recent transformation into an “Autistic Supportive Environment” is all about.
Sound-reducing headphones that Rhinebeck Police can use to calm a person with autism who might be agitated and “Burt,” a soft rubber doll that can also used to calm an autistic person.
Since 2011, the Anderson Center for Autism, located in nearby Staatsburg, has been helping businesses become autism-supportive environments. In part, that means learning about the special needs of people with autism, and changing environments to ease the lives of people with autism and their families.
For example, according to Eliza Bozenski, chief development officer at Anderson, florescent lights, which sometimes buzz and flicker, can be a problem. People with autism, she said, “can’t zone it out. It may be uncomfortable or even painful.”
To become autism-supportive, the business simply might change florescent bulbs to softer lighting.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and the support organization Autism Speaks, one in 59 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. For boys, the numbers are higher: one in every 37. Of these, 31 percent have an intellectual disability and an additional 25 percent are borderline. One-third of people with autism are non-verbal.
Life can be difficult for families as well as for people with autism, said Kollar, who talked about the problems of going out together
“Owen had a major meltdown,” she said. “People were staring. We were embarrassed.” But the more information that is shared, the more people know, the less the stigma, she added.
In November 2018, the Anderson Center approached Rhinebeck’s village mayor, Gary Bassett, with a novel idea: How about making the entire village autistic-supportive?
“It took me literally three seconds to agree to work with them on this initiative,” Bassett said. The mayor went on to assemble a committee to launch the project.
Dutchess County’s “Think Differently” initiative endorsed the project, and the Thomas Thompson Trust awarded a $10,000 grant to help.
By June, more than 44 businesses and organizations had committed to “Do One Thing” to make the village more autism-friendly.
At Village Pizza, families with autistic children don’t wait; they get priority service. “I’ll pass up three or four people to take care of a table with an autistic child,” said owner Al Mazzella, who added that autistic children can get “antsy” when they have to wait.
Aba’s Falafel is creating a menu with pictures. Ruge’s Automotive will offer a “sensory safe space” during an upcoming village festival. And the village has equipped all police vehicles with “sensory kits,” a package that includes headphones and soothing tactile objects.
“The kits have already been used a half-dozen times,” said Bassett. He added that fire trucks will turn off lights and sirens if they know an autistic person lives in the area to which they’re responding.
“This has just been fantastic,” Bassett said. The next phase is to reach out to the entire town of Rhinebeck, he said.