When her children were young, Amy Azano avoided most events because her son, as a child with autism spectrum disorder, found them too loud and bright and crowded.
Then, one day, Azano’s family was invited to attend a college football game in a private box. The quieter, more controlled setting enabled her son to enjoy a game for the first time.
Years later, that experience inspired Azano, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech School of Education, to found SAFE: Supporting Autism Friendly Environments. Based in the Center for Autism Research, the program broadens access to entertainment for children with autism and their families by taking into account the children’s sensory challenges and related anxieties. Azano is now seeking to expand the program through a crowdfunding campaign available through April 26.
“Outings that most children find fun — trick-or-treating, miniature golf, a trip to the movie theatre — can be overwhelming or even terrifying for those with autism,” said Azano. “Yet with simple and creative interventions, those same activities can become accessible and enjoyable.”
For the events, Azano and the rest of the SAFE team — including Angela Scarpa, director of the Center for Autism Research, and graduate students in the Department of Psychology — work with local partners to make environments more soothing. A movie theatre will lower the sound and raise the lights to avoid total darkness, while a shopping mall will mute sounds and dim lights.
Some events provide access to a nearby quiet room to enable retreats from the crowd, while others allow the children to preview attractions before opening hours. Hokie BugFest, the Virginia Tech Department of Entomology’s annual celebration of creepy crawlers, for example, offers an advance viewing of a flea circus.
“Autism can feel extremely isolating — not just for a child with autism, but for siblings and parents too. But it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Azano, who is also director of the Education Core at the Center for Autism Research, which is based in the College of Science. “SAFE not only enables children with autism and their families to participate in events, but it also embodies the university’s motto of Ut Prosim — That I May Serve — by teaching empathy and creating a community of compassion.”
The program works with an ever-expanding list of local partners, including the Lyric Theatre in downtown Blacksburg; the Virginia Tech Science Festival; the New River Valley Mall, which sponsors a SAFE Santa every December; the Oak Lane Community of fraternities and sororities, which offers SAFE trick-or-treating; and Theta Delta Chi Brothers United, a Virginia Tech fraternity that coordinates outings, such as mini-golf, bowling, and nights at the Children’s Museum of Blacksburg.
“There’s more than one way to experience the world,” said Azano. “Interventions for children with autism are often designed to teach them how to interact in social settings. People with autism are constantly trying to negotiate their sensitivities to navigate through life. SAFE raises awareness that the world can be malleable, too. The world can bend toward the person with autism; the adjustments don’t have to move in just one direction.”
To support the SAFE campaign, visit Azano’s crowdfunding page.