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Mt. Pleasant, SC: City now "autism friendly"

June 1, 2023, Charleston (SC) Post and Courier: What does it mean to make the town of Mount Pleasant autism friendly?

Layla Luna’s life changed the night her family was kicked out of a restaurant.

It was a local pizza place in Los Angeles — the same one she had visited growing up. Luna was waiting for a table with her 6-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son in tow, eager to dig into the restaurant’s famous garlic rolls.

A hostess finally showed them to their seat: the first booth in a long row against the wall. More tables crowded the center. Sawdust dotted the floor. A game of Pac-Man chirped from an arcade machine. Loud conversation and the smell of melted cheese filled the dining room. The restaurant was packed that night.

Luna’s son, Rio, was particularly hungry. He grew more agitated as waiters handed out plates of his favorite, pepperoni pizza, to the other diners.

His mom and sister tried to help, passing Rio a toy dinosaur to fidget with. Anything to calm him down. But their pizza did not come, and Rio started rocking in his seat. Then he began to scream and bang his head.

The other customers turned toward the family and stared. Some offered their opinion, Luna said: “Control your kid,” and, “What kind of mother are you?”

Their food arrived, but Rio had already spiraled. A manager told them to leave.

Luna asked her father to pick them up. She knew she couldn’t safely get Rio inside her own car. She put her hands on either side of his head as they waited, squeezing at the points just above his ears to remove pressure. Luna and her daughter reassured Rio: “It’s OK. We know you’re a good boy.”

Rio, who is nonverbal, was diagnosed with autism at age 2. His sensory system became overwhelmed inside the restaurant, triggering a meltdown.

Rio and Luna are part of a growing population of families affected by autism.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this year that one in 36 children are diagnosed with the disorder — a fact the town of Mount Pleasant formally recognized in April by declaring itself the first in the Lowcountry to be certified autism friendly.

Luna couldn’t stop replaying that night in her head, wondering how the situation could’ve been different. What if the restaurant workers knew Rio had autism? What if they were trained to be sensory friendly, seating Rio in a quieter area or quickly preparing his food?

Luna started Just Bee to answer those questions. The Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit, established in 2019, aims to raise awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder and create technology for the community.

Luna is pushing leaders of Charleston-area municipalities to take a pledge to make their communities autism friendly, beginning with the certification process she helped create. Just Bee will release an app this summer similar to Yelp, featuring autism friendly businesses, events and opportunities.

The nonprofit has become Rio’s voice. Luna hopes her work will encourage officials, first responders, businesses and community members to learn how people with autism live, creating environments that accommodate their needs.

“It’s such a beautiful world I see,” she said. “It’s so clear to me.”

Isolated families

There was a point in Precious Alexander’s life where she and her daughter, Ava, didn’t go anywhere. The 3-year-old has a penchant for jumping, screaming and running when she gets excited.

Trips to the grocery store became a burden for the single mom. Once, Alexander had to leave her full cart behind after Ava had a sensory meltdown. The other customers stared. Some gave unsolicited advice. It was easier to do her shopping online.

Being the parent of a child with autism can be an isolating experience. But Alexander decided about six months ago to bring Ava more places….

Everyone was there for “Lights & Love,” a Just Bee-sponsored event to celebrate neurodiversity. The umbrella term, primarily adopted by the adult autistic community, describes someone whose brain has developed differently from the average or “neurotypical” person. Conditions like dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder also fall into this framework.

Autism spectrum disorder is often called the “invisible disability.” There’s nothing distinct about the biological makeup of someone who has autism, explained Dr. Diane Cullinane, a developmental pediatrician and Just Bee’s medical expert.

Children like Saachi, Ava and Rio are born with differences in their sensory and motor processing. Saachi’s headphones, for instance, help dim noise, which can sometimes be overwhelming, her mom said….

Just Bee founder Layla Luna, Mount Pleasant mayor Will Haynie and Mount Pleasant Councilwoman Laura Hyatt cut a ceremonial ribbon commemorating Mount Pleasant as the Lowcountry’s first certified autism-friendly municipality during the Lights and Love event at the Mount Pleasant Town Centre on Saturday, April 22, 2023. Brett Lemmo/Special to The Post and Courier

Luna took the stage with Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie and Councilwoman Laura Hyatt.

Armed with a pair of giant scissors, they cut a ceremonial ribbon declaring the town autism friendly….

‘Calm, quiet, judgement-free’

Just Bee awarded Mount Pleasant its certification at the beginning of April, recognizing that the town’s leaders are pledging to make the municipality more inclusive.

“There is no roadmap to this,” Luna said. “But it starts with the intention.”

Both Luna and town officials are figuring out what it means to create an autism friendly town. Mount Pleasant is following the lead of other municipalities around the world.

The city of Mesa, Ariz., provides guests with a list of certified hotels, restaurants and attractions. A hotel in Clonakilty, Ireland, created sensory maps showing which areas are more stimulating.

In Mount Pleasant, the town’s nine council members were asked to complete a half-hour interactive training developed by Cullinane. The link, available for a year, will hopefully be disseminated among other town staff members.

Cullinane recently wrote a new curriculum specific to first responders. She plans to conduct an in-person, three-hour training in July with the town’s police officers, firefighters and paramedics. Mount Pleasant’s Chamber of Commerce also intends to take the training, and will encourage its members to do the same, Luna said.

“The goal isn’t to be nitpick-y,” she added. “The goal is education, awareness.”


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