MECHANICSVILLE, Va. -- Seven-year-old William Martin was filled with smiles and giggles in a space most kids his age find scary: a pediatric urgent care center.
His whole family was there not for an injury or emergency, but instead for what the center is now doing for kids, like William, who have autism.
“You kind of almost rock, paper, scissors for who’s going to be the parent to take them because you know it’s going to be mentally drained and exhausted because a lot of times it’s really hard to find a provider that really understands your child," Ashely Martin, William's mother, said.
All four KidMed locations have earned "Autism Friendly Communities" designation from the Autism Society of Central Virginia, the first private business to do so.
Several of the rooms are now designated "sensory friendly" spaces, where lighting and sound can be controlled if those stimuli impact a patient with autism.
Sensory kits — filled with items like poppers, fidget spinners, and sunglasses — are available throughout the entire building.
Importantly, every employee with KidMed, from the front desk to the healthcare providers in the back, went through several hours of individualized training on how kids with autism might react to someone with their job responsibilities and how to make the environment better for them.
“From the very beginning, the front desk staff knows to ask, is there anything special your child needs? Any special needs that they have?” Dr. Mark Flanzenbaum, co-founder of KidMed, said.
Dr. Flanzenbaum said many healthcare providers surprisingly do not learn about the autism spectrum and how it manifests for individuals outside of textbooks, one reason KidMed decided to take part.
“This whole training allows you to sort of have that introspective, wow, we need to do something different. It really does. When you do it and see the positive outcome, and you see the kids more comfortable, and you see the parents happy with what you did, everyone feels good about it," he said. "We did it specifically for kids with autism, but it supersedes that. The same processes that we did work for neurotypical kids, for kids with other special needs.”
Ann Flippin, the executive director of the Autism Society of Central Virginia, said they're already working with several other local organizations who expressed interest in becoming an "Autism Friendly Community."
"It still amazes us how many places really don’t understand autism and how many of our families fear going out into the community," Flippin said.
The training and facility upgrades organizations go through are comprehensive, but Flippin said anyone can work to make those with autism feel more comfortable on a daily basis.
"Just being friendly and being mindful that you never know what someone has going on. Just being aware and being a friendly face. If you see something happening, don’t stop and stare," she said.
With or without the designation, William's parents hope more places and people work to understand the autism spectrum and treat people like their son with love.
"More and more companies and stores and people are just becoming more inclusive and understanding what it is to be on the spectrum. So, I think we’re seeing a positive shift in the right direction," Joe Martin, William's father, said.
The Autism Society of Central Virginia has more information on businesses interested in becoming "Autism Friendly Communities." They're also hosting their annual"RVA Duck Race and Festival of Inclusion" fundraiser on Saturday at Brown's Island.
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