So often we hear the terms, "autism-certified," and "autism-friendly". I was asked by ABILITY Magazine to write an article about Visalia, California's new designation as an Autism Certified Destination. I entered into this exploration with a bit of trepidation, yet some curiosity and an open mind. Once I finished the project, I had a deeper understanding of multiple perspectives around the topic of autism certification.
Here is my ABILITY Magazine Article:
In downtown Visalia, California, next to the local post office, stands a lone sequoia tree, named The Legacy Tree. It is a very tall baby tree, if you will, planted nearly 100 years ago. Surrounding the tree, is a wide, extended, circular mulch and rock area, which indicates the projected growth of the circumference of the tree once it reaches maturity. Sequoia trees are considered the largest living trees on earth and can live to be 3,000 years old. They are known for their massive trunks which can reach 36 feet in diameter. As of 2015, the Legacy Tree in downtown Visalia had a diameter of 41 inches. It still has a ways to go before reaching maturity.
I found my visit to the city of Visalia, which has recently earned the title of the first “Autism Certified Destination” in California, and is also known as the “Gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks,” to be both encouraging and heart-warming, as well as cause for reflection.
On one hand, I met extraordinary individuals and teams, doing everything in their power to do better for the community, dedicating time, energy, and money, for trainings for themselves and their employees. Braving new territory (new to them) has expanded their understandings of inclusivity, and has even prompted critical reflection of who else has been included, and who has not. Ultimately, everyone I spoke to expressed the joy of connecting with autistic people and their families, but also in connecting with inclusive goals for their business and community. This desire to “do the right thing,” appears to be making a difference for community members, at least for those whose mindsets are being transformed. And it is Visalia’s hope that this Autism Certified Destination status will draw more families and individuals to experience the rich beauty and history of the city and its natural and cultural resources, without stressful attitudinal barriers and other access barriers that often prevent people from traveling.
On the other hand, upon interviewing a diverse array of autistic individuals and families, there were mixed responses to the concept of autism certification, and even to the writing of this article by me, a non-autistic individual. Before getting to these considerations for reflection, let’s look at how this autism certification endeavor began and the growth that has been made.