MU Thompson Center promotes World Autism Awareness Day

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COLUMBIA - The MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders is introducing a new training initiative for local businesses as part of World Autism Awareness Day. 

The "Autism Friendly Business" initiative will embrace local businesses as key influences in promoting autism awareness and supporting people with autism in the community.

MU Thompson Center Assistant Research Professor Karen O'Connor, Ph.D., said the initiative allows local businesses to gain a better understanding of autism, and the strategies they can implement to make their business more accessible and inclusive for people with autism. 

Businesses will have to meet certain criteria to be recognized as autism-friendly. 

O'Connor says all business employees will have to complete overview training. The MU Thompson Center will also provide strategies tailored to specific organizations and their services. O'Connor used hotels as an example of what the initiative could achieve. 

"We can provide tools and visuals businesses can put on their website ahead of time, so that families going to stay at a hotel could look at pictures, find a narrative of what to expect when they check in and go to their room, and what the options are for dinner. Those things can really be helpful for families ahead of time and make everybody's trip more enjoyable," O'Connor said. 

The initiative hopes to make businesses more accommodating for the autism community and everyone.

"Our hope is not only to build an inclusive community for individuals with autism, but really anybody. We want to make businesses feel like they can support anybody who walks through their door," O'Connor said.

O'Connor said many local businesses are interested in the initiative. She did not name specific organizations because there hasn't been any formal action.

O'Connor also said the initiative will target businesses like hotels, restaurants and recreation centers.

Among the initiative's many goals, O'Connor said the hope is better prepare businesses to take on employees with autism.

"Individuals with autism often times have difficulty getting and maintaining employment as adults. A passionate area for us is how to provide supports to adults with autism, to give them tools they need to maintain employment, and to give businesses the tools they need to support employees with autism," she said.

Promotional materials for the initiative will launch throughout April as part of Autism Awareness Month.

To promote World Autism Awareness Day, the MU Thompson Center is hosting a Light It Up Blue event tonight at 6 p.m. For the first time, the event will also incorporate a walk from the MU Student Center to Memorial Union. There will also be a balloon drop, prizes and appearances by Truman the Tiger.