Open arms that open doors: autism friendly spaces

Establishments who are committed “Autism Friendly Spaces” make sure their clients are aware of their distinctive and highly-rewarding approach to autism by opening their arms and doors to those who need them as much as the rest

As a loving and caring society moving on 21st century tracks, the Autism Friendly Spaces project launched this week is the best example of giving inclusivity, quality of life and voluntary services a secure footing: a commitment on behalf of Maltese society that, with open arms, opens doors to a sizeable sector of our population that needs understanding and unconditional support.

Apart from a project mirrored by my ministerial portfolio, it is a reflection of a government that has unfailingly matched its ambitions and aspirations in this sector with concrete deeds.

The creation of Autism Friendly Spaces would not have been achieved without the contribution of Prisms, the NGO whose dedicated group of young workers and volunteers helped make it possible, Aġenzija Żgħażagħ and the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities. They were solidly backed by various European organisations, among them the Belgium-based Autism Europe, the Autism University of North Macedonia and “Learning Designers” from Spain, to turn an ideal into what is now a working reality.

Some may wrongly think the Autism Friendly Spaces project addresses a small niche in Maltese population, but confirmed statistics established globally by the US Government’s CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show otherwise. It is estimated that one person out of every 88 is subject to this condition, widening the spectrum enough to demand everyone’s attention.

In as direct a manner as possible, this is what the Autism Friendly Spaces project actually does.

The project, funded by the EU’s Erasmus+ programme and the first of its kind, focuses on young autistic men and women by establishing inclusive, open spaces for them where they can experience their unique sensory approach to life. In this way they become part and parcel of a society they rightfully belong to, and so providing them with a better quality of life as they go into adulthood with confidence and a belief in their qualities and talents.

It is only fair to acknowledge the unstinting support of the eight public establishments that have accepted to become “Autism Friendly Spaces”, by carrying out the necessary alterations to make their places a better sensory and inclusive experience for autistic persons, and by training and fostering among their employees a greater awareness of this condition. In so doing, they also make sure their clients are also aware of this distinctive and highly-rewarding approach to autism by opening their arms and doors to those who need them as much as the rest. Inclusivity at its very proudest and kindest.

The “Prisms” Mark of Quality has fittingly been granted to Esplora, Gallarija Darmanin, Malta International Airport, Malta National Aquarium, the National Museum of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum, Festival ZiguZajg and Eden Cinemas, to all of which Maltese society will forever be grateful, hoping their pioneering acceptance is the catalyst for other establishments, private or otherwise, to make Maltese society an even greater basin of support and inclusivity.

But how do these establishments make it all work? The practicalities are many, of course depending on the style and character of the Mark-of-Quality holder. There are those who carry out physical changes to allow fading lights and music as well as screens. In the case of cinemas, for example, popcorn machines are operated prior to showtime so as to avoid any unnecessary noises, while tickets can be bought either online or via machines that help avoid queues and waiting time. A film’s transmission is not interrupted by intermission or advertisements, with the low lights kept on and the hall doors open.

During visits, other establishments offer individual company to autistic persons for them to have their own different ways of viewing and touring the places in complete comfort and ease.

The project cannot be a static one. It needs to grow and flourish, hence the creation of research-backed online modules on its website and app to provide information on autism – its different sensory, intellectual and social aspects – to educators and youth workers alike who will be encouraged to form their own inclusive classes/groups.

Young, autistic men and women have their social lives and the setting up of temporary hubs and the holding of informal workshops will pave the way for them to integrate much better in society as they eventually join existing hubs where they will make new friends and be able to be a part of the scene on the threshold of full maturity.

The project also addresses the noble objectives of the National Strategy for Autism, the first ever of its kind in Malta and which we launched last November. It is entirely designed to address a better awareness of autism in Maltese society, to emphasise the educational aspect of inclusivity and to provide open public spaces, such as those already available in the eight founding establishments.

There is still so much more to do, but the success of this project will go a long way towards consolidating what has been achieved over the past few years when government, its agencies and departments, volunteer organisations, families, academics and consultants, as well as the regional and international institutions, have made of inclusivity and a better quality of life a reality to be proud of. Open arms have opened doors.