Florence Chamber Pushing for Autism-Certified Town

by Blake Herzog

The Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce is leading an effort to earn an “Autism-Certified Town” designation for the Town of Florence through training businesses, first responders, and other members of other community sectors how to interact with people who have autism or other cognitive disorders.

Chamber Executive Director Roger Biede said the campaign was inspired by the City of Mesa, which in 2019 became the first (and is still the only) municipality that has won the “Autism-Certified” label from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.

“The Florence Chamber started working with a couple of projects to educate our Town and businesses on autism and came across the program that Mesa had done. It seemed to be exactly what we were looking for and something that would work well in Florence,” he said.

The certification is awarded more frequently to individual businesses, public agencies, and nonprofits that have educated employees about serving this sector of the population. Arizona examples of this include the Queen Creek Parks and Recreation Department, OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale, Salt River Project (SRP), and several large hotels in the Phoenix area.

Biede said in his announcement of the Autism-Certified Town initiative in January that this designation will market local attractions to families with neurologically atypical family members who want to know if emergency personnel, hotel and restaurant staff, and others will know how to serve them with respect and without causing distress.

He told Golden Corridor LIVING, “Our mission is to make as extensive a network as possible of trained and trusted destinations that families with individuals with autism and other sensory disorders can trust with their vacation, shopping, and even main residence plans.

“There have been a number of studies showing the correlation between training/awareness of special needs with a measurable increase in tourism spending.”

The response from business owners and government officials has been “overwhelmingly positive and completely supported,” he added, with many asking how they can get started in the program.

Biede said it will take about a year for enough Florence entities to complete the self-paced online classes. Workers in the health care, education, tourism, public safety, small business, corporate, and workforce development areas will get position-specific written and video instruction on how to interact positively with neurodiverse residents and customers.

The initiative includes encouraging employers to hire cognitively disabled workers for the unique talents they have, pointers for hospitality and recreation destinations to make everyone’s visit a positive one, and in the medical field, continuing education credits for therapists.

Happy Hearts Communities is planning to participate. Amy Kinnett is working to establish a community of “tiny homes” for high-functioning adults with disabilities. She recently opened Old West Homebrew Saloon at 350 N. Main St. to help support Happy Hearts.

Kinnett has a son with autism. She said there are many instances when a business can make its environment more welcoming to people who are on the spectrum.

“Let’s say it’s light sensitivity, and the business can dim the lights to help with the light sensitivity. Or let’s say it’s noise, and I’m cooking something and using a blender in the back of my shop and it’s too loud, my employees or I know that, OK, I do have a unique individual in my shop and I’m going to give them a heads-up that there’s going to be a loud noise right now, and we can make those accommodations to make them more comfortable,” she said.

She said the Autism-Certified Town designation will be positive for Florence and its business community.

“Having this happen is huge for our little community, and people will see it, they’ll recognize it on the map, knowing they can take their family to Florence and know that if they have a child or adult child with special needs, the people on the front lines will know how to handle a situation when the situation arises.

For more information about the Autism-Certified Town campaign call the Chamber at 520-868-9433. For more on how your organization can obtain the certification, contact Meredith Tekin, president of International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, at meredith@ibcces.org.