HIGH POINT, N.C. — Empathy.


Information about what sights, sounds and experiences to expect.

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Quiet places to retreat if those experiences get overwhelming.

In High Point, tourism leaders are betting if they can offer these basics for people with autism and their families, they can attract more visitors and dollars to the city while becoming more inclusive.

Earlier this month, a group called the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards recognized the city as a “certified autism destination.” It’s the second city in the United States to receive the designation from the group, and the first in the eastern part of the country.

That announcement came after more than a dozen local attractions, restaurants, hotels and organizations went through training with the Florida organization to become “certified” autism centers. It’s a project that Visit High Point — the city’s nonprofit tourism arm — has been working on since 2021, building an itinerary that’s centered on family attractions like Q’s Corner, the High Point Museum and the Nido & Mariana Qubein Children’s Museum.

“It’s just so amazing to see that this is coming to fruition,” said Kerry Magro, an autistic professional speaker, author and consultant who serves on the International Board of Credentialing’s board.

As of 2020, an estimated 1 out of every 36 children in the United States had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder by the time they were 8 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When you have statistics like that, all of a sudden it becomes a business plan really fast,” said Melody Burnett, the president of Visit High Point.

The story of how and why High Point tourism leaders sought certification for the city begins with the 2021 opening of the Q’s Corner play place on North Main Street. Candace Humphrey and William Hayes, parents of child with autism, created the indoor play gym as a business catering to the needs of children with varying abilities.

Carlvena Foster, a Guilford County commissioner and a board member of Visit High Point, learned that many visitors to Q’s corner were from out of town and looking for other places to go. So Foster asked Burnett to connect with Humphrey.

Coincidently, a podcast that Burnett followed had aired an episode about Mesa, Ariz. — the other city certified by the International Board. In the podcast, Marc Garcia, the CEO of Visit Mesa, talked about the vacation he and his family took to another city. Garcia explained that his son, who has autism, had “meltdown after meltdown after meltdown” while the family faced whispers and stares from the staff of the restaurants and hotels they visited, which he said was “extremely uncomfortable.”

“I said, you know, this isn’t right. This isn’t how it should be. We are in the hospitality industry, for crying out loud,” he recalled. “While I couldn’t do anything about it there, I knew it was something I could address in Mesa, so that’s what I set out to do.”

Based on that podcast, Visit High Point set out to follow Mesa’s lead, working with the International Board to pursue certification.

David Laxton, the director of communications for the Autism Society of North Carolina, said what’s been happening in High Point and Mesa coincides with similar efforts in other places. That includes the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, and the South Carolina city of Myrtle Beach, which advertises its certification by the Champion Autism Network.

Laxton said he’s glad to see cities and attractions taking a look at how to better welcome and serve people with autism. He hopes that initiative can spread beyond tourism and hospitality to incorporate a wider variety of locations. There’s so much more for communities to do, he added, in learning how to better understand and include people with autism.

Still, with the example set by High Point and others, “we view this as progress,” he said.

To become certified by the International Board of Credentialing, at least 80% of staff that interact with guests must complete training on autism, which has to be renewed every two years. The training covers how to understand sensory and communications needs or differences. It also emphasizes that people with autism are not all the same.

“We let them know not to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry that you are autistic!’ or something like that,” explained Meredith Tekin, who leads the International Board of Credentialing.

Trainees, she said, also learn about behaviors they might see from a person with autism, such as flapping hands or vocalizations, and about requests they and their families might make, including food preferences.

“At the end of the day you are going to have empathetic staff and some more tools at your disposal,” Tekin said.

For each area of an attraction, the group gives a rating from 1 to 10 — with 1 being low sensory stimulation and 10 being high — for touch, taste, sight, sound and smell.

So, for example, the fire truck exhibit at the Nido & Mariana Qubein Children’s Museum in High Point is a level 3 for touch, with opportunities to walk into the vehicle and handle the steering wheel. It’s also a level 6 for sound due to the truck’s siren and because it can be an active area.

That information allows families to plan ahead for sensory experiences they think might be enjoyable — or want to avoid.

Peyton and Jason Davis of Colfax, the parents of a 5-year-old with autism, have been advising Visit High Point. They said some people with autism are sensory avoiding and some are sensory seeking. But others, like their son, are more of a mix.

“It really can vary. It’s not like calm and quiet is the most ideal,” Peyton explained. “Another part that is challenging — some days he can really get a lot from his environment and love that and other days it’s overwhelming for him.”

Magro of the International Board said the work being done today on making destinations more welcoming is breaking new ground. He wishes it had been around when he was a child. Back then, he had to avoid public places because of how challenging it was for him to deal with overstimulation.

“It was isolating at times,” he described.

These days, Magro is more comfortable in public, including speaking in front of audiences and traveling. The main thing he seeks for himself when traveling is just to book his hotel room away from a lot of foot traffic, elevator sounds or other noises.

Both Magro and Tekin said that something children with autism and their families can typically expect at attractions that are certified like the ones in High Point is a designated “quiet room.” Magro said it may include items many people with autism find soothing: fidget spinners, weighted blankets and noise-canceling headphones.

At the children’s museum in High Point, there is a quiet room available for whomever needs it. Most commonly it’s children, with autism or not, who need a break, said Executive Director Megan Ward. But they’ve also had parents looking for somewhere to decompress.

“Usually, if you are getting overwhelmed, you don’t want a bunch of attention put on you, and so the low-sensory spaces can be good for that as well,” Tekin said.

Riley Hammond, the manager of Distractions Art Studio in High Point, said one thing that struck her about the autism training was discovering that 1 out of every 6 people, including those without autism, has a sensory need.

Hammond said she realized that means her as well. She finds noisy environments distracting and prefers to use ear plugs in those situations.

She said she was motivated to make her studio a “certified autism center” after recalling the accommodations she received for dyslexia in college.

“I was like, OK, this is something that’s changed my life,” she said. “So when I think about me being able to accommodate another person, I feel really inspired to be able to help someone feel safe and feel comfortable and have a good time — just like anybody else can. It’s so important to me.”

Peyton and Jason Davis usually only have a handful of places they will go with their son, but earlier this month they decided to try dining at Sweet Old Bill’s, a High Point restaurant that’s one of the new certified centers.

The service was prompt, they said, and no one asked that their son, who is uncomfortable in shoes, wear them.

The best part, they said, was just knowing they were welcome.

© 2023 News & Record
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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