When a teen in New Jersey went to the movies with his mother earlier this year, a simple night out turned into a nightmare when an irate manager called the police to have the young man removed from the theater. The teen’s crime? He’s autistic, nonverbal, and needed to accompany his mother to the women’s restroom.

It’s the type of scenario all too familiar for families who have children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

“It’s hard to put into words the feeling you get when somebody looks at your child like she’s ‘other,’” explains Bedford, NY, resident Wendy Belzberg, mother of a 25-year-old daughter with developmental disabilities named Leigh. “She sometimes does things that can be unexpected, but it doesn’t [justify] the lack of respect” people often show her.

So Belzberg decided to do something about it. She’s the driving force behind Bedford’s Inclusive Initiative, an official community commitment to better accommodate residents with autism and other disabilities. Launched this past fall, more than 60 stakeholders — from local government officials to first responders and shopkeepers — have already received specialized training on the tools and strategies that help the neurodiverse live rich and fully inclusive lives.

The initiative “benefits everyone,” says Belzberg. “We are all a little bit different. Who doesn’t need some accommodations or fine-tuning or consideration?”

Bedford joins a fast-growing list of municipalities, airports, amusement parks, and local businesses embracing neurodiversity initiatives. Some work with education and training programs to become certified as autistic or sensory-friendly, including Philadelphia, which was just certified as the nation’s first-ever “sensory-inclusive city” by the non-profit organization KultureCity, while others are creating their programs to tackle specific challenges, including ways to make autistic drivers safer.

Even Walmart has gotten into the action, this year implementing sensory-friendly hours (think: no music and static TV walls) to accommodate those with sensory perception issues.

There’s a good reason for the growth in these initiatives: Autism diagnoses are skyrocketing.

In 2020, the last year for which data was available, 1 in 36 8-year-old children were identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), up from 1 in 68 in 2012 and 1 in 150 in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

To read the rest of the story, go to The New York Post, where it’s published in its entirety.

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