For children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, socialization can be challenging, attempting to interact with and socialize among other individuals without necessarily understanding or having an acute awareness of the cues and communication devices one might use in such circumstances.

Children like Oliver, who lives with both autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and profound hearing loss, can find themselves in potentially uncomfortable situations as a result. Oliver, who traditionally communicates through sign language, will ask children to play by brushing up against them for attention, and sometimes by hugging them without notice. Parents like Oliver’s father, 43 year old James Carner, have grown accustomed to taking a defensive position on the issue, choosing to explain his son’s behavior to others in an attempt to make encounters as less awkward as possible.

As a result, there can be hesitation in bringing children with autism and other developmental disabilities into public spaces such as supermarkets and parks out of fear of judgment or frustration. Some parents refuse to subject their children to such encounters entirely.

However there are a number of practices, techniques and tips for both parents and, in a larger sense of community, businesses, in coping with children and persons with autism in manners that are compassionate and encouraging to their development and interaction with people and society.

Dr. Katherine Zuckerman, general pediatrician and associate professor of pediatrics at the Oregon Health & Science University, suggests the possible practice of storyboarding, where parents can use the visual stimulation of pictures to tell a story of what their children will experience in any given example of socialization. This allows children the opportunity to rehearse in a safe, controlled space before embarking out into the real thing, which can alleviate a fair amount of surprise for the child prior to their arrival.

Businesses and establishments can also be contacted by parents who can explain the conditions of the child and see if any accommodations may be made. In turn there are a number of resources for businesses, including the Central Oregon Disability Support Network, which provide training services so businesses can learn what to expect. By bringing awareness and sensitivity to businesses, a larger sense of community can be created that will encourage children with autism to embrace their environment and the world at large, bringing them into the world while simultaneously giving the world a better, more empathetic understanding of their own perspectives and needs.

One business in the Bend area, an indoor play area called Bouncing Off the Wall, has adopted such an outlook and is one of Oliver’s favorite places to visit and socialize. Carner and his wife are grateful to the establishment for its willingness to accommodate their son, lending a helping, communal hand in his nurturing and development. This has also paid dividends back to the business itself, thanks to the foundations of community created.

“When I find that Bouncing Off the Wall is having issues,” Carner said. “I’m like, ‘You know, that place has helped me raise my son. I’m going to do everything I can to help them out.’”

Over the past year, Oliver has shown remarkable development in his social and personal skills, including using the bathroom, washing his hands and feeding himself entirely on his own, even experimenting with trying a variety of new foods.

Socialization is a crucial aspect of life. Through compassion, community and understanding, children with autism can be encouraged to embrace that aspect, going on to lead positive, fulfilled lives.

This story, originally published on The Bulletin.

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