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Help support families caring for loved ones with autism. 

Ashley Soebroto

MARLBOROUGH — When Dianne Lima and her husband first set up their salon in Marlborough six years ago, the couple noted how many of their clients were autistic. After a friend connected Lima with various autism support groups, the business owners took numerous steps to better understand and assist the community.

Lucas Lima Barbers & Beauty is among more than 40 autism-welcoming certified organizations in Massachusetts that offer accommodations such as low-sensory environments during specified hours or designating specific quiet areas within establishments.

“Everything we do here is to help the community,” Lima said. “Everybody's welcome here.”

With a growing number of MetroWest businesses becoming autism-welcoming certified, the region could become a starting point for Massachusetts to be a more inclusive and accessible place for the autism community.

Autism is diagnosed in about 1 in 36 children, and in an estimated 2.2% of adults nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which defines autism as a neurodevelopmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

Medical experts said individuals with autism can face various difficulties that impact their lives, from navigating social interactions to experiencing hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli — sounds, lights and textures.

“As soon as you walk out of your front door every day, it's unpredictable,” said Chris McDougle, director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Lurie Center for Autism. “You don't know anything that's going to happen, you don't know what questions people are going to ask you … the anxiety that is generated from trying to interact with our world is overwhelming, let alone the sensory overload.”

Autism Welcoming Initiative trains businesses to be more accessible.

Wanting to establish public spaces where autistic people can feel comfortable, Autism Alliance of MetroWest — one of the state's seven autism support centers — launched its Autism Welcoming Initiative in 2019. The initiative trains and certifies businesses to be autism welcoming.

“People are really hesitant to bring their kids into the community, because they're worried about being judged by their child's behavior, or people get nervous if there's noises that they weren't expecting,” said Pamela McKillop, co-director of Autism Alliance of MetroWest. “And knowing that there is a business or an organization that already says we'll welcome you, come as you are, we understand … that anxiety level can be diminished.”

Through the certification process, McKillop said the support center works with local businesses to create accommodations for autistic individuals, and provides autism-welcoming training sessions to employees.

At the Natick Mall, families with autistic children can visit the autism-welcoming certified Dave & Buster's — a place most would consider a “sensory overload business,” McKillop said.

“It's about making small steps that you can take to help be accommodating,” said Josh Featherstone, general manager of Dave & Buster's Natick location. “The games, the lights can be pretty vibrant, and some people can find them overwhelming … but what we can do is provide a quiet space away from that to escape from the high energy side of the building.”

Featherstone said Dave & Buster's also provides sensory-friendly hours every month by opening the store an hour earlier than usual for those who want to come during a less crowded time.

Nancy Sullivan, associate director of Boston Children’s Hospital Autism Spectrum Center, said unexpected changes to daily routines and environments can cause distress to autistic individuals.

So to ease the stressful experience of going to new places, Allison Daigle, executive co-director of Autism Alliance of MetroWest, said some certified businesses provide online guides that detail what individuals can expect when visiting.

Marlborough salon has become welcome spot for autistic Brazilians.

In Marlborough — one of Massachusetts’ top five Brazilian communities — you’ll find the Brazilian-owned Lucas Lima Barbers & Beauty.

Lima said the salon is more than a place where customers can get facials, or their hair cut. It's also a place of support for the Brazilian autistic community.

“We are so happy to get smiles from clients, and we’re here to serve and help the community,” she said.

Lima said prior to a client’s appointment, the business sends an online form where customers can ask for certain accommodations during their visit, such as lowering the volume of music or having lights dimmed.

McKillop said certified businesses are provided with a sensory tool kit for their customers, which includes items such as headphones, sunglasses and stress-reducing fidget items.

As more local businesses become certified, Daigle said the goal is to designate and certify a MetroWest community as autism-welcoming.

“Our goal was to be the hub… so when somebody comes into that community, they automatically know all these businesses, all these places are all autism welcoming and have those key components already in place,” she said. “I think the sky’s the limit.”

Discovery Museum in Acton unveils 'Especially for Me' program

Another place that's taking steps to build accessible public spaces and connections with autistic communities is the Discovery Museum in Acton.

From its outdoor treehouse and swings to the indoor exhibits, the museum follows universal design principles to make it accessible to all children, according to Brindha Muniappan, senior director of the museum experience.

The museum hosts an "Especially for Me" program, which offers events and learning experiences tailored to the needs of autistic children, as well as those with other disabilities.

Ann Sgarzi, the museum’s director of marketing, said families come from throughout the state to attend these events, with others coming from Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

Muniappan said the museum offers free membership to families who attend Especially for Me events.

“The (free) membership really helps,” said Deb Roy, a parent of two autistic kids. “The first year we got the free membership, we definitely went a whole bunch of times and then through word of mouth, we were able to spread that to our friends as well.”

Roy said she learned about the museum’s Especially for Me events in 2021 through Facebook groups for moms with autistic children. Despite how crowded their first visit was, Roy said her kids “had an absolute blast.”

“It's just the fact that everybody's their kind of as a community,” she said. “Every kid that's there, the parents are all dealing with some sort of extra challenge that neurotypical children don't have … and that's also a really important thing is having that community space knowing that the other parents are there to back you up when you need it.”

There’s been a large shift in understanding autism since it was first mentioned in 1940s medical literature, according to McDougle.

Today, more resources and services exist to support autistic people, and in comparison, to other states, McDougle said Massachusetts does “a better job” in providing that support, with many of his own patients having moved here.

Maura Sullivan, senior director of government affairs and health policy for the Waltham-based advocacy group The Arc of Massachusetts, said the state has also seen “legislative wins” that better support the autistic community.

In 2020, Massachusetts passed Nicky’s Law, which created an abuser registry for caretakers employed by the state through the Department of Developmental Services. And in 2021, Sullivan said the state introduced a police training bill that required police cadets to undergo training on how to approach autistic individuals.

However, McDougle said support and services are lacking for adults and those with “profound autism” — a term proposed by the Lancet Commission in 2021 that specified traits such as substantial intellectual disability and very limited language.

McDougle said adults with autism struggle to access day programs that are often understaffed and underfunded, especially since the onset of COVID-19. Staff who work for these programs are often paid low wages for difficult and challenging work.

Sullivan added that many of these programs shut down over the pandemic, and with the direct support workforce currently experiencing a crisis, this has left thousands of adults with autism with little support.

Despite staffing and funding challenges, Mass. makes 'huge progress.'

But while the state still faces issues with accessibility, housing, education and employment initiatives for the autism community, Sullivan said Massachusetts has made “huge progress.”

“We have the best medical care, very good school systems, and about 15 years ago, we passed one of the best autism insurance reforms in the country,” she said. “It's a different world now, which is great.”

Sullivan added that advocates and lawmakers are pushing for legislation to make interactions with law enforcement autism friendly.

For example, legislators are currently considering a bill to implement the Blue Envelope program, which would allow drivers with autism to have a blue envelope that contains the driver’s diagnosis, impairments, triggers and emergency contact information. When stopped by police, autistic drivers can hand over the envelope to help make traffic stops or accidents less stressful.

As MetroWest businesses and organizations push for better awareness and inclusiveness for the autism community, those such as Daigle hope to eventually see autism-welcoming efforts spread throughout the whole state.

“(Our goal is) to change the world, of course,” she said. “We want to make the world just a much better place for people that have autism and when they go into the community.”