Helping to make a special needs family feel welcome..

I was recently asked how to make a special needs family feel welcome and comfortable at a local church, so I thought about the many instances this summer where we have found ourselves trying to survive in a world that wasn’t made for our son.

Last month, I took my six-year-old with autism to our local movie theater for a sensory-friendly showing of the Lion King. The theater advertised raised lighting, lowered sound and the unspoken assumption that it would be full of people who understood how challenging a movie can be for those in the autism community.

We entered the theater and could see a few children sporting headphones and looking at iPads. Yep, this felt right. As we selected a seat in the corner away from as many people as possible, I anxiously looked over my shoulder at the people scattered about the theater. Even though we were surrounded by families in a similar boat, I began my anxious wait; for the stares, the whispers or even the moment when someone may ask us to leave due to disruptive behavior. After recently reading about a family who dined at Outback being asked to leave, I’m painfully aware of that very real possibility. As the movie began, “The Circle of Life” played and I teared up a little knowing that we were participating in something normal for a change. My son settled into my lap watching Sid the Science Kid on my phone, occasionally peering up to stare at the movie screen. He ate his snacks and smiled at his show while my heightened awareness of everything and everyone around us was in full swing. As families got up and moved around, I wondered if we were the cause of their departure or their move. I questioned and doubted my decision to go out in public to an unfamiliar place and wished that we were back in our living room watching Mamma Mia for the millionth time. Then a child behind us began to cry and in response, my son started loudly saying “baby crying, wah-wah, baby crying!” Which was then followed by pulling my hand motioning for us to leave. Simba was still a cub and we hadn’t even made it to “Hakuna Matata” but we decided that he needed a break. We exited the theater and my dad took my son’s hand while the two ran from one end of the theater hallway to the other. As they jogged down and back giggling, I noticed a few employees walking toward us, and again, I held my breath waiting for them to say something, but then I quickly realized one of them was someone I recognized. She was the daughter of a friend and a person with Down syndrome. We were in a place that valued everyone, and the odds of being asked to leave were slim. No one said anything about sprinting outside the theater or popping in and out a few times in an effort to hear the songs before we left. It was ok. We were ok. And we felt welcome.

What made the difference for me wasn’t the fact that the lights were up, or the sound lowered, it was the culture of the theater, as well as the other families who accepted us fully without a side-eye. A business that would host such an event, that would hire an employee with a disability and who would create spaces where families feel comfortable stretching out of the socially acceptable norm sets the tone for actual inclusion.

So if you happen to wonder how to make a family with extra needs feel welcome or accommodated, a good place to start is with your own comfort and philosophy about people with different abilities. Sure, places like the Pittsburg International Airport with their sensory-friendly lounge complete with bubble tubes, soft colors, and dim lights are incredible spots for a family in need of refuge from airport sensory overload, truly what we need is no judgment, freedom to break out of the box, and spaces that allow us to regroup. We’ve sought refuge in all sorts of places, on a park bench in a hospital garden, a senators office, and a movie theater hallway. These spaces, devoid of stares, comments, and even bubble tubes have given us the strength to continue trying to be a part of a world that may not have been made for us but that we hope one day will be.

Guest Author:
Angie Auldridge
M.S. Clinical Counseling
Disability Advisor and Blog Author: Mighty and the Bean