Making Tulsa an Autism-Friendly City
How two moms have dedicated their lives to making Tulsa the first Autism Friendly City.
Two Tulsa moms who have dedicated their lives to autism awareness and education have set their sights on a bigger goal: creating the first Autism Friendly City. Jennifer Sollars Miller and Michelle Wilkerson, co-founders of the Autism Center of Tulsa and creators of Autism Friendly Locations (AFL) program, which launched in March, would like Tulsa to be the first of many cities that are consciously considerate of individuals with autism.
“Parents work tirelessly to provide appropriate education, therapies and support for their child with autism so they can become independent,” Wilkerson said. “But if we send them to practice what they have learned into a community that doesn’t understand their unique needs, then they may become defeated. One in 88 children has autism. Many of whom are high functioning but might need a little extra consideration when doing business in the community – Autism Friendly Locations is an effort to support their independence and also give businesses the tools to recognize and support their customers who are on the autism spectrum.”
Both Sollars Miller and Wilkerson have a child with autism, so the concept for AFL came naturally. After years of experiencing unpleasant interactions at establishments because of the combination of their child’s actions mixed with a misunderstanding of autism, the women realized that simply increasing awareness would support businesses and families affected by autism. Sollars Miller said that people are much more understanding when they’re educated on autism and the many forms it takes.
“The reality is that people are going to give people labels, and we want to give them the correct one,” Sollars Miller said.
That label comes in the form of I’M A-OK, an autism identifier logo that can be worn as a sticker, on a shirt, as a card to be kept in a wallet, or even on a lanyard. I’M A-OK is a complementary component of the awareness campaign. The I’M A-OK symbol will help Tulsans recognize that a person has autism and give them an opportunity to help or simply be more patient, if necessary.
“Autism is not visible,” Sollars Miller said. “There is no wheelchair, there is no defining physical characteristic. I’ve said many times that my son would be understood better if only people knew he had autism – and now people can know with the I’M A-OK logo, which identifies his autism in a positive light. This will be a physical representation giving him an opportunity to shine in his perfect, unique way – and even strangers will understand his behavior!”
The two programs work together so that businesses can better serve their customer, and customers with autism are able to thrive in the community.
The Tulsa Police Department, Tulsa Fire Department, Tulsa Sheriffs and EMSA are all recognizing I’M A-OK as the official autism identifier and believe the system will help them in the future.
Sollars Miller and Wilkerson have been reaching out to businesses and organizations across the city to join the program. A one-year membership comes with a tool-kit for employees and I’M A-OK stickers for customers. One of the first business owners on-board was City Councilor Blake Ewing.
“White Flag and Joe Momma’s are restaurants for all,” Ewing said. “I want to participate so that my team is aware and can give our guests that extra-special attention – the same way we would for someone struggling with a stroller or having difficulty reading the menu. This program gives us the tools to serve our fellow Tulsans, and that’s what matters most to us.”
Mosaic, the Tulsa Regional Chamber’s diversity business council, supports inclusive business opportunities, noting that inclusion impacts the bottom line. Although the general consensus for AFL is that it’s the right thing to do, – Denise Reid, the director of talent strategies and recruitment at the Chamber, reiterates that it’s also a smart thing to do.
“It is basic math – more customers mean more money,” Reid said, “and when you purposefully open your doors and tell people with autism that they are just as important as anyone else…they will want to do business at your establishment. If my child had autism, I would get on the AFL website and select a business from every industry and recommend he bank at an AFL, shop at an AFL, and eat at AFL restaurants. It gives me peace of mind to know that employees are aware. In my opinion, that extra care deserves the extra money on the bottom line.”
Sollars Miller and Wilkerson have a complete list of businesses and community partners that they need to commit to the program in order to become the first Autism Friendly City that recognizes the I’M A-OK logo. Anyone interested can learn more at www.AutismFriendlyLocations.com or www.AutismTulsa.org.