Home­town of Spam proud to Be ‘Autism friendly’

Min­nesota ham­let that gave the world Spam is proud to be ‘autism-friendly’

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - NEWS - AMY EL­LIS NUTT

A tall teenager with the buzz cut opened the mu­seum door and said cheer­ily, “Wel­come to the Spam Mu­seum.”

Sa­muel Ehret is an of­fi­cial “Spam­bas­sador” at the mu­seum, a hot spot for tourists who have a taste for the much-mocked canned meat that Hormel Foods has made in the small Min­nesota town of Austin for 81 years.

Sa­muel is also autis­tic, and he got this job be­cause he loves all things Spam.

He also landed the job be­cause Austin is an autism-friendly town. Ten years ago, it be­came one of the first in the U.S. to launch a com­mu­nity-wide ef­fort both to re­duce the dis­or­der’s stigma and make lo­cal busi­nesses aware of the spe­cial needs of autis­tic cus­tomers. It is also prob­a­bly the only small U.S. town to em­ploy a com­mu­nity autism re­source spe­cial­ist.

The mis­sion was “a grass­roots ef­fort to im­prove our com­mu­nity,” said Mary Barinka, an em­ployee of the non-profit Hormel His­toric Home, where she serves as an autism re­source li­ai­son for Austin. She is also a for­mer Hormel mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive, and the mother of a 16-year-old daugh­ter with autism. For some­one like 18-year-old Sa­muel, the town’s at­ten­tion to the con­di­tion has been in­valu­able.

“When he was an in­fant, he would just lie there, no cry­ing,” said Sarah Ehret, Sa­muel’s mother. Her son failed to reach ex­pected mile­stones and she was at a loss as to why.

When some­one anony­mously placed a mag­a­zine in her mailbox, it made sense. One of the ar­ti­cles was “Top 10 signs your child has autism.”

“This is my son,” she said to her­self.

Autism is a neu­rode­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­der that is char­ac­ter­ized by de­layed lan­guage, repet­i­tive be­hav­iours, sen­sory sen­si­tiv­i­ties and dif­fi­culty with so­cial skills. Although the symp­toms of autism can over­lap with other de­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­ders, such as learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and at­ten­tion-deficit/ hy­per­ac­tiv­ity dis­or­der, it has dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics, in­clud­ing nar­row, in­tense in­ter­ests and rou­tines and oc­ca­sional emo­tional melt­downs when those rou­tines are dis­rupted.

Austin, with a pop­u­la­tion of 26,000, is the kind of place that still has a video store, where the one cof­fee shop in town is called The Cof­fee Shop, and a yel­low traf­fic sign near a nurs­ing home car­ries the warn­ing “Dear Cross­ing.”

Fif­teen busi­nesses in this Mid­west­ern ham­let carry the of­fi­cial des­ig­na­tion “autism-friendly.” Among them: the Para­mount Theater, Mid-Town Auto, two den­tists, two oph­thal­mol­o­gists, two hair sa­lons and three sum­mer day camps.

To qual­ify as autism-friendly, a busi­ness must make an ef­fort to min­i­mize sen­sory over­stim­u­la­tion — low­er­ing lights, turn­ing down or elim­i­nat­ing loud mu­sic and shield­ing the in­di­vid­ual from oth­ers’ cross talk.

Busi­ness own­ers must fill out an ap­pli­ca­tion and then, along with their em­ploy­ees, go through ed­u­ca­tional ses­sions. They learn about the dif­fi­cul­ties peo­ple with autism ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing their trig­gers — a sound or a smell or an un­fa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tion that may cause a melt­down. They also learn how to in­ter­act by speak­ing slowly, in a clear voice and in short phrases. Most im­por­tant, they are shown the value of learn­ing to be pa­tient and flex­i­ble.

The value of th­ese autism­friendly ef­forts is in­cal­cu­la­ble, fam­i­lies say, be­cause it not only makes the lives of those liv­ing with autism eas­ier, it also al­lows them to have ex­pe­ri­ences that those with­out autism have rou­tinely. Best of all, they are les­sons in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, one of the chief skills that many chil­dren with autism must work es­pe­cially hard to de­velop.

Heidi Schara re­mem­bers well a break­through mo­ment she wit­nessed when her son, Jack­son, came home from school one day.

“He said, ‘I think I talked too much about some­thing or other.’ Then he said, ‘How was your day?’”

That Schara’s son was able to turn his at­ten­tion from him­self to his mother made it her “best day ever.”

She cred­its th­ese eureka mo­ments, in part, to Austin’s unusu­ally open en­vi­ron­ment.

“Hav­ing this autism-friendly move­ment — it’s in­cred­i­ble to have peo­ple who want to un­der­stand,” she said.

Austin’s autism-friendly pro­gram be­gan a decade ago, when a re­tired Hormel ex­ec­u­tive, Gary Ray, tele­phoned Barinka, a fam­ily friend, and asked whether her autis­tic daugh­ter, then 6, was able to par­tic­i­pate in any town ac­tiv­i­ties, such as sum­mer camp.

“No, not re­ally,” Barinka re­mem­bers an­swer­ing. “We’d like to take her to camp, but you have to ex­plain her fre­quent needs and hire some­one as a helper.”

Austin is small enough that Ray and his wife, Pat, were fa­mil­iar with Barinka’s strug­gle to find ap­pro­pri­ate re­cre­ation for her daugh­ter.

“What if( Pat and I) gave you a small con­tri­bu­tion of $5,000?” Ray said. “Could you start a camp?”

It didn’t take long for Barinka to say yes. She is a woman with a keen abil­ity to ad­vo­cate and or­ga­nize and a seem­ingly bot­tom­less reser­voir of en­ergy. Her job as autism re­source spe­cial­ist is part time, just 10 hours a week, but Barinka reg­u­larly puts in 40, of­ten field­ing ques­tions and re­quests from other par­ents: “A new busi­ness wants to be­come autism-friendly, can you give a pre­sen­ta­tion to em­ploy­ees?” “How do I find the best speech ther­a­pists in town?” “The lo­cal com­mu­nity col­lege wants to start a spe­cial autism pro­gram. Can you help out?”

To date, the Rays have con­trib­uted more than $100,000 to fund autism-friendly pro­grams in Austin.

Autism-friend­li­ness has also reached into the schools, where a peer pro­gram pairs high school­ers with autism with sim­i­larly aged stu­dent vol­un­teers. The pro­gram is so pop­u­lar that there is a wait­ing list of stu­dent vol­un­teers.

Word of Austin’s un­usual autism­friendly ser­vices has re­sulted in at least a half-dozen fam­i­lies mov­ing to the town. Carolyn Dube grew up in Austin, but she spent much of her life else­where, pri­mar­ily in Phoenix, where the re­sources for her son, Alex, were lack­ing.

“There were a lot of be­havioural is­sues with him,” Dube said about life with her son in Ari­zona. “He threw things, was in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent and too hard to pre­dict.”

A new job brought her to a sub­urb of Min­neapo­lis, about 90 min­utes from Austin, and Dube be­gan to pick up sto­ries about her home­town’s trans­for­ma­tion.

“We’d hear amaz­ing things,” she said. “And that’s when we started re­al­iz­ing how spe­cial some of Austin’s autism pro­grams were.”

Dube’s fam­ily moved back to Austin when Alex was four. He’s in high school now and takes mostly main­stream classes. He is es­pe­cially tal­ented in math and sci­ence, and be­cause autism is a spec­trum dis­or­der of vary­ing de­grees of dis­abil­ity, Dube fully ex­pects him to go to col­lege and study en­gi­neer­ing.

“Now Alex is al­most a new per­son,” she said.

Other par­ents say they ’re see­ing progress they never thought pos­si­ble be­fore Austin be­came autism­friendly. Barinka’s 16-year-old daugh­ter used to bite the chain­link fence at her older sis­ter’s soft­ball games and throw tantrums. To­day, she is on her high school dance team and plays trum­pet in the band.

Barinka has re­ceived calls from Salt Lake City and Flagstaff, Ariz., in­quir­ing about how to set up their own autism-friendly pro­grams, fur­ther­ing a trend of en­trepreneur­ship and in­no­va­tion by in­di­vid­u­als in the autism com­mu­nity.

In 2015, for ex­am­ple, Penn­syl­va­nian To­pher Wurts, a mar­ket­ing and tech­nol­ogy ex­ec­u­tive who has a son with autism, founded a vir­tual Autism Vil­lage. It’s an app that works a bit like Yelp, lo­cat­ing nearby autism-friendly places and busi­nesses and let­ting users rate and re­view their ex­pe­ri­ences.

How Barinka helped cre­ate her own bricks-and-mor­tar ver­sion of an Autism Vil­lage in­cluded not only the Rays, but also the Hormel Foun­da­tion, the Hormel His­toric Home and nu­mer­ous mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, both paid and vol­un­teer, who make the pro­grams run.

Be­cause of such con­tri­bu­tions, Austin is able to of­fer ser­vices at vastly lower costs than those in places where camps can run as high as $800 or $900 a week, ac­cord­ing to Barinka. Austin’s autism day camps cost just $150, and many of the more than 50 campers re­ceive schol­ar­ships, bring­ing the price down to $25.

Sa­muel Ehret, the “Spam­bas­sador,” is a mem­ber of All Ac­cess Com­mu­nity Ex­plo­rations for those in grades 6 through 12. One of the orig­i­nal campers 10 years ago, Sa­muel ben­e­fited from the group ac­tiv­i­ties — sports, art, com­mu­nity trips — that were a large part of his camp ex­pe­ri­ence.

He also came home with more so­cial skills, which he has used in his var­i­ous part-time jobs. To­day, it is clear that his role as a Spam­bas­sador suits him well.

As vis­i­tors leave the Spam Mu­seum, Sa­muel opens the door and wishes them well:

“Have a Spam­tas­tic day.”

PHO­TOS: JENN ACK­ER­MAN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

“Spam­bas­sador” Sa­muel Ehret, right, who has autism, an­swers a guest’s ques­tions at the Spam Mu­seum in Austin, Minn. The town’s on­go­ing autism-friendly ef­forts have en­cour­aged schools, busi­nesses and res­i­dents to ac­com­mo­date peo­ple on the spec­trum through a va­ri­ety of pro­grams.

Austin, Minn., a com­mu­nity of about 26,000, pro­motes the aware­ness and ac­cep­tance of peo­ple with autism.

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