Introducing the Autism Friendly Communities Program to Help Businesses Create Inclusive Spaces

The ASCV has developed a new comprehensive training program about Autism to help local businesses better support and include Autistic people and their families: Autism Friendly Communities (AFC).

The AFC program provides local businesses and organizations with high-quality training about Autism and how to best support and include Autistic people and their families in their place of business. Partners receive expertise, training, and resources from local professionals, individuals with Autism, and family members, tailored specifically to their type of business. ASCV staff collaborate with leadership teams to evaluate, adapt, and expand aspects of their business to make it more accessible to our local Autism community.

Because Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States–one in 36 children currently receives an Autism diagnosis–the training will fill a growing need in the community.  

“With Autism prevalence steadily increasing, accessibility efforts must be enhanced to accommodate, celebrate, and value this growing, diverse population,” says ASCV Executive Director Ann Flippin. “We already work and partner with so many business leaders who want to create inclusive environments, and as a response, we’ve created a way to do that by sharing our expertise and lived experiences.”

“We care for many children, teens, and young adults with autism at KidMed, and it’s important to everyone on our staff to understand the needs of these patients and their families – especially while they’re coping with an illness or injury,” says Mark A. Flanzenbaum, M.D., FAAP, Co-founder and Managing Partner of KidMed, a pediatric urgent care clinic. “The ASCV’s training will help us provide better care, not just for patients with autism, but also for patients with anxiety and sensory issues.”

KidMed is the first for-profit business to pilot the AFC program. KidMed leadership contracted with the ASCV to provide Autism 101 training to their staff, design tailored training for clinical staff on best strategies for interacting with Autistic individuals, conduct a sensory audit of their facility, and organize a review of their website and patient materials. ASCV staff, with the input from members of the ASCV Self-Advocate Council and caregivers, created a thorough list of recommendations for KidMed to implement. Staff of both organizations collaborated to develop a customized plan to accommodate Autistic individuals and their families in all four of its pediatric urgent care facilities. KidMed will complete the program and receive their official designation later this summer.

“We’re proud to be the first medical practice in the area to receive ASCV’s training and designation as an Autism-Friendly Community,” Flanzenbaum says. “The experts at ASCV are knowledgeable, experienced, and connected to the autism community, and we know we’re getting the best information to serve our patients. We look forward to our ongoing partnership with ASCV and supporting people with autism.”

Rachel Pretlow oversees and implements this program for the ASCV. Prior to taking on this role in March, Pretlow served as an ASCV Community Educator and is Co-Chair of the ASCV’s Self-Advocate Council. Pretlow says she is highly invested in expanding the AFC program. 

“I believe that the AFC program has the potential to improve the lives of many community members, including Autistic individuals – like me – and our families,” Pretlow says. “When I found out about this position, I knew that this was the opportunity for me to take on a bigger role in promoting the ASCV’s mission and vision.”

This work will become more important as the prevalence of Autism increases. As a sign of a  growing need for this type of support, the ASCV has witnessed an increase in demand for its services. In 2022, the ASCV served more than 7,000 participants (up from 5,500 in 2021) through 362 programs (up from 350 in 2021). In addition, last year the ASCV awarded more than $26,500 in scholarships to families facing financial challenges while caring for a loved one with Autism.

“We’re grateful for KidMed leading the way in our business community,” says Flippin. “As more businesses like KidMed join the AFC program, more places will be safe, welcoming environments for our Autistic community members.”

“This program has the potential to be life-changing for a lot of people in a lot of really positive ways: access to employment, access to certain spaces as an option,” says Pretlow. “It’s really refreshing to think that our voices are being heard and sought out and valued.”

ASCV is a recipient of The Boost Investment Fund at the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond, which has funded the initial creation and implementation of the AFC training. The ASCV drew on its experience, offering presentations to local businesses and organizations including its Autism 101, Autism 101 for First Responders, and Autism in the Workplace trainings.

“ASCV delivers one of the best training and development opportunities we have participated in,” shares a Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden team member. “We have been able to develop actionable steps for growing our Garden into an even more inclusive resource for the community.”

The AFC program is offered for a fee based on the size and scope of each organization and the extent of individualized resources and accommodations.

Businesses interested in learning more about how the program can benefit them can email the Community Engagement Manager at [email protected].

Learn more about the Autism Friendly Communities program.