The Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research, in conjunction with Blacksburg businesses and campus organizations, is embodying the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) by working to make events friendlier for youth with sensory challenges.
Center director Angela Scarpa, an associate professor of psychology in the Virginia Tech College of Science, and Amy Azano, an assistant professor within the School of Education, part of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, are continuing to build their three-year-old SAFE: Supporting Autism Friendly Environments program throughout the New River Valley, with an eye toward further expanding it. The center is part of the College of Science.
The goal of SAFE is to promote a more inclusive community by organizing low-cost events and environments that will be more accessible to youth with sensory or communication challenges, said Scarpa. In coming weeks, vendors with the Virginia Tech Science Festival will undergo training to work with children with autism as part of the Nov. 4 event. This follows the center’s work with the Hokie BugFest, which celebrates the science of entomology, hosted by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“Autism can feel extremely isolating, but with simple interventions and more understanding, it doesn't have to that way,” Azano said. “When we have more inclusion and more awareness, we build a community of care. We don’t just teach acceptance, we practice it. We don't just use Ut Prosim as a tagline. We embody it.”
For many of the SAFE events, Scarpa, Azano, and graduate students in the Department of Psychology, work with businesses and vendors to either dim lights and sound in a shopping mall, or in the instance of a cinema, dim the sound and slightly turn up the lights so as to not be in total darkness. Communication skills also are worked on before events, as some youth with autism may not be able to communicate verbally.
At some events, a SAFE event might include allowing youth with autism in before the rush or a crowd, or having “quiet rooms” nearby throughout the event’s run.
Along with these events, Azano said plans have been set in motion for SAFE trick-or-treating at the annual Oak Lane Halloween event and for a third SAFE Santa at the New River Valley Mall in December. SAFE events in the past have included last year’s SAFE Santa, movie showings at the Lyric Theatre in downtown Blacksburg, and events coordinated with the fraternity Theta Delta Chi Brothers United, such as mini-golf, a spring 2017 picnic, nights at the children’s museum, and bowling.
Scarpa and Azano both noted how willing the community has been to helping create SAFE events. Scarpa and Azano both find personal inspiration for their work in autism outreach and care from their own families, having first-hand experience navigating community challenges for children with autism.
“The community has great ideas and are coming to us for help, which is awesome,” Azano said. “One of the coolest things about SAFE is that we have not yet been told ‘No.’ When we approached The Lyric, with this idea, they welcomed it. When we asked the New River Mall to open early and keep the lights dimmed and the music off for a SAFE Santa, they welcomed it. This has been our experience at the children’s museum, at the putt-putt golf course, at the bowling alley, and so on.”
She added, “When I talk about SAFE with community partners, there is more and more understanding that this is also home to people who want to be actively engaged in this community, but might need support in doing so.”
The Lyric Theatre, located on College Avenue, just off the northeast side of campus, has shown several children’s films and this fall showed the documentary movie "Deej," about a young man with autism. Last year, the Moss Arts Center partnered with SAFE to show the film "Autism in Love" and previously hosted a SAFE children’s concert.
“The Lyric Theatre is a not-for-profit that strives to be a gathering place for the whole community. We are also uniquely located at the literal cross road of campus and community,” said Susan Mattingly, executive director of the Downtown Blacksburg landmark cinema.
“Virginia Tech’s academic departments often are a source of innovative programming," added Mattingly. “Whether it’s the Center for Autism Research, Center for Civil War Studies, Department of Foreign Languages, or others, working with these groups allows us to provide a wide variety of thought provoking events to the public. These partnerships foster a culture of lifelong learning and engagement that helps our community to remain vital.”
Written by Jessie Rogers, of Suffolk, Virginia, a senior in the Department of English, part of the College Liberal Arts and Human Sciences