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The Autism Welcoming Initiative™

It all started in a church basement in a small town in Massachusetts, back in 1993, when a group of six families, all of us with children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, gathered to try and wrap our heads around this shattering diagnosis. Our families supported one another, sharing vital resources including doctors, teachers, and therapies. At that time, rates of autism were believed to be one in every 10,000 births and the internet was not part of our everyday lives. Resources surrounding autism were not easily accessible.

We found immense value in the support and guidance we provided one another. Furthermore, we did not want other families repeating the experiences we had already endured. Fueled by this desire to make a difficult path easier for others, we transformed from a small, informal support network into a non-profit organization. The group quickly grew from six members to sixty and became known as The Family Voice. With a shoestring budget granted by the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, our volunteer-run organization set up a small office space. We designed programs such as SibShop (for siblings of children with autism), support groups, Sunday gym programs, music programs, newcomers’ packets, and a lending library. In 1998, The Family Voice became The Autism Alliance of MetroWest. We partnered with Natick’s Morse Institute Library, which provided a permanent home for the resource center. By 2003, we attained official non-profit and grew our roster to approximately three hundred area families.

As The Autism Alliance grew older, so did the children that we served. The same core group of families searched for a solution that would allow the agency to continue to serve individuals with autism who were now entering adulthood. To accomplish this goal, in 2009, The Autism Alliance became a program of Massachusetts human service agency Advocates.

Today, The Autism Alliance remains the only autism-specific family support center of its kind in the MetroWest Boston area. We continue to support families living with autism and our commitment to making a difficult path easier for others is stronger than ever.

To this end, we also provide training to members of the community on how to compassionately respond to individuals with autism. This program is called the Autism Welcoming Initiative™. Through Autism Welcoming Initiative™, we partner with businesses and organizations to make the community more welcoming and accessible for families and their loved ones with autism. The goal of the initiative is to help create richer, more socially inclusive lives for families by helping organizations become sensitivity responsive. The program involves training business owners and staff about how they can support customers with autism that visit their establishment. After learning about the nuances of a particular business, we offer “Autism 101” training with practical, implementable, and highly impactful customized recommendations so their business or organization is truly Autism Welcoming. To date, we have certified over thirty businesses as part of the Autism Welcoming Initiative™, including restaurants, museums, entertainment complexes, salons, and service agencies.

There have been considerable changes in the past three decades. The internet and social media are now common ways to find resources and information. From the original six families raising children with autism, our group has grown to include to 2,700 families on our mailing list It is estimated that one in thirty-six children born today will be diagnosed with autism. Even as the landscape has shifted and evolved, the grassroots mission of The Autism Alliance has remained the same:

Provide families with information, education, and support. Plan programs and events that will aid those families, while increasing public awareness, acceptance, and action regarding autism.

Our core programs designed thirty years ago still exist. The six families that began the agency are still involved, including a resolute Governing Council. While larger, we remain a network of families dedicated to a common goal: providing people with autism opportunities for a full and meaningful life.

Penny Anderson

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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