Jenny Paterson: Make your business autism friendly and you could reap the benefit

Jenny Paterson, director, The National Autistic Society Scotland
Jenny Paterson, director, The National Autistic Society Scotland
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My new year got off to a ­flying start at the National Autistic ­Society Scotland when I presented Edinburgh Airport with our ­prestigious Autism Friendly award. The organisation is the first airport in Scotland to land our award in ­recognition of the accessible and ­supportive environment it has ­created for autistic passengers.

The busy nature of an airport can sometimes make the experience for passengers challenging and the ­airport has provided autism ­awareness sessions for staff; put extra measures in place to help ­children better prepare for their journey; offered a pre-visit option to familiarise people with the sights and sounds of the airport environment; and introduced discreet lanyard and pin badges to identify those with ­hidden disabilities, so staff are aware of the potential need for ­additional ­support.

I had the pleasure of meeting Kim Gibbons and her son Ryan who have already benefited from ­Edinburgh Airport’s new approach. Ryan ­sometimes doesn’t like the noise or how busy it can be and is grateful that he now knows what to expect from friendly staff to help him on his way.

I am very impressed by the comprehensive approach Edinburgh ­Airport has taken to improving access for autistic passengers. ­Visiting the airport can be a very stressful, and sometimes daunting experience for autistic people and their families and these changes will make a huge difference. Edinburgh Airport is very deserving of our Autism Friendly award and has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring autistic ­visitors are supported and know what to expect.

The Autism Friendly award ­champions premises which commit to making sure that autistic visitors receive the same warm welcome as everybody else.

It recognises organisations that have taken steps to ensure autistic people and their families can access and enjoy community spaces, businesses and shops. It was introduced after the charity revealed that 66 per cent of autistic people in Scotland feel socially isolated.

Every customer-facing organisation, whatever their size or business, can benefit from becoming autism-friendly. This doesn’t mean investing in expensive alterations or training your staff to be autism experts. Small changes can make a massive ­difference to autistic visitors and a ­little understanding can go a long way.

Reviewing your premises and the services that you offer from the ­perspective of an autistic person will help you to identify the challenges which stop them from regularly using your business. When you consider families and carers, around 232,000 lives are directly affected by autism in Scotland. That is a number that no business can ignore and just goes to show that good customer service is an autism-friendly service.

The Scottish Parliament became the first building in Scotland to scoop the award in 2015 and the airport follows closely in the footsteps of a number of other Scottish organisations who have received it, including Aberdeen Football Club, Garioch Leisure Centre, Glasgow Film Theatre, Macrobert Arts Centre, Rangers Football Club and Sport Aberdeen.

We’re busy working with ­other organisations that are taking their commitment to providing an ­accessible environment for ­autistic people seriously, so watch this space for more news of awards being achieved this year.

This year’s World Autism Awareness Week (26 March – 2 April) is just around the corner. There are plenty of ways to get involved in our biggest fundraiser, whether it’s at work or in school, or fundraising your own way. This year we are delighted to have the fantastic support of beloved toy ­maker Playmobil.

If you are struggling to stick to your New Year’s resolution of keeping fit, then please consider signing up for our Night Walk for Autism which is taking place in Glasgow on ­Saturday 17 March.

The event is suitable for all ages and will give walkers the chance to see the city in a different light whilst raising vital funds to help us to build a world where autistic people are understood, supported and appreciated. The walk starts at 9pm and has 5k, 10k and 15k routes to choose from. Night Walk for Autism 2017 was sold out and places are filling up fast for this year’s event.

For more information about how to gain an Autism Friendly award or to participate in World Autism Awareness Week, including the Night Walk for Autism, then please go to our website www.autism.org.uk

Jenny Paterson is director of The National Autistic Society ­Scotland.