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Columbia, MO: Working to be "autism-friendly" city; businesses benefit

May 25, 2023, KOMU TV, Columbia, MO: Thompson Center strives to make Columbia an official autism-friendly city
In an effort to make Columbia an official autism-friendly city, the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment is partnering with local businesses to train employees on how to best create a more inclusive environment.
The organization hosted a Brunch and Belonging event Thursday morning, which explained to around 35 businesses and local leaders how they can become autism friendly.

According to Cortney Fish, a behavioral analyst at the Thompson Center and one of the presenters at the event, there is a real need for the program in the community. She said one out of every 36 people are diagnosed with autism.

Fish said the center's Autism Friendly Business program works with businesses of all kinds to provide guidance on making a more welcoming atmosphere for those with autism. She said the first step of the program involves a free consultation with a business to get a better idea of how to best achieve its goals.

"We meet with them, we tour their space, we talk about their mission and goals and how they could best support individuals," Fish said.

Based on this consultation, the program then provides training for employees and supervisors, including personalized tools, strategies and recommendations. Once theses steps are complete, a business must have 100% of its leaders, as well as at least 80% of staff with customer-facing roles trained, before it can officially be deemed autism friendly.

The program said it has trained over 50 businesses in Columbia so far and has seen promising results from businesses. According to Fish, often times clients report that being more inclusive has made a direct impact on customer with autism.

"They hear feedback from families who let them know, like, 'I never thought I could come to this restaurant, or I never thought that my kid could get a haircut in public,' but because they [businesses] participated in this [program], families now feel not only welcomed in that place, but they know should their child have a melt down, there's going to be staff there who have gone through training, who are going to be supportive, who are willing to maybe be creative," Fish said.

Those who have a family member with autism may have less fear or anxiety about visiting places in the community if a business is autism friendly, Fish said.

Additionally, the program has also proven to help increase the number of people who visit a particular business.

"If they have a good experience, they're going to then tell friends and family like, 'Hey I came here and I felt very welcomed', and then it has this trickle down effect," Fish said.

The goal is to be able to officially declare Columbia an autism-friendly city. The program requires 80% of all businesses in the city to have gone through this training.

Mayor Barbara Buffaloe was also in attendance at Thursday's event and said she hopes to proclaim Columbia as an autism-friendly city in the future.

The Autism Friendly Business program estimates the city could officially reach this threshold by the end of the year. Various city leaders and groups at the brunch said they are more than willing to participate in the program.

Blake Willoughby, a Columbia School Board member, said he hopes Columbia Public Schools implements the program. He said it could make a difference for the almost 10.8% of students who use special services throughout the district.

"When those buildings [schools] are having conversations about, 'How do we make sure that passing period or that our classes are also being autism friendly?' and that we are really looking at how we incorporate all of our kids in all of our programing," Willoughby said.

Margaret Conroy, executive director of Daniel Boone Regional Library, said library staff are already trained on how to work with people with diverse needs. However, she believes a program like this would only help make the library even more inclusive.

"It's important people know that the library is a safe space for everyone to come in and enjoy our resources," Conroy said. "We want to make sure that everyone feels value in the investment they make in the public library system, and this is another way of adding value."


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