A Message From Our CEO Cate Merrill: Making North West Florida an Autism Friendly Community

A Message From Our CEO Cate Merrill: Making North West Florida an Autism Friendly Community

Published on April 8, 2020

Today, I am starting to feel the effects of social isolation. have truly appreciated the “forced family time” during walks and bike rides with my daughtersplaying gin rummy with my son like I did with my grandmothergetting caught up on emails and work projectsacquiring (some basic) integrated marketing skills, and developing a remote April Autism Awareness Month campaignthat until just a few weeks ago, centered on community based events and support from local businesses willing to promote the vision of an autism friendly community within their workplace. Learning how to advocate for autism, without the use of my actual voice, my face, my ability to connect with people in order to demonstrate my passion for the organizationhas been a skill I have needed to build. I am not allowed to rebel against this form of interaction any longerI have needed it– and I have enjoyed it.  

But today, I am feeling alone. I miss my friends. I miss my mom. I miss my co-workers. I miss Sephora! I am isolated because it is not necessarily safe out thereHowever, I am able to more deeply appreciate thexperience of social isolation that so many individuals with autism and their families realize on a regular basis. “It doesn’t feel safe, there may be stigmas, it could be painful, we aren’t welcome, it’s not worth it… let’s just stay put.” I am not suggesting that we do not need to stay put during this time– just that extended periods of minimal social interaction can certainly take its toll and could possibly impact the way someone interactin the future.  

One misconception I would like to address regarding individuals with autism, is that they want to be alone. We are all human. We thrive in relationship with others. Painful or confusing experiences may train us to avoid similar ones in the future, and I believe this to be especially true for autism— but it doesn’t mean that they enjoy the isolation. Challenges navigating the landscape of friendships and social interactions, are common characteristics of autism, but the majority of people I know with autism do indeed have a social appetite and they yearn for connections. How can we, as a community, help to create more opportunities for positive interactions? The answer is in awareness and acceptance 

The unique characteristics of autism that often combines the disability with apparent physical normality and likewisethe presence of significant communicative and sensory challenges, alongside significant skills and talentsoften provides opportunities for onlookers to make uninformed assumptions. The observed behavior is sometimes mistaken for a lack in parenting skills, a dangerous lack in self-control, or a mistaken assumption of mental illness. The stigma that the individual, the parents, and the siblings may feel c further increase the desire to isolate, which only creates fewer opportunities to practice socialization, and also fewer opportunities for the community to really get to know” a person with autism.  

Solutions: Understand autism- don’t be alarmed by it. 1 in 54 individuals live with autism and should be typical members of our diverse communityUnderstand some of the challenges an individual with autism may face. Too many questions, too many sounds, too much visual confusion, too many changes, or too much unpredictability can all cause incredible distress to a person with autism. If possible, simple changes that cost nothing to your business or service can be the difference between a successful outing and a distressing one to a person on the autism spectrum. If you are unable to make environmental changes, the attitude of acceptance is often enough. If an individual or family knows that they are welcome, no matter the unpredictable challenges that may arise, they will begin to explore and expand on the possibility of new and even more positive experiences. Ultimately, the practice of being “autism friendly” benefits everyone including busy parents, senior citizens, and culturally and linguistically diverse community members. Autism Friendly practice helps people engage with their environment and that makes happier customers and community members. Our businesses and community leaders desire for Northwest Florida to be a place that others will want to live, workand playand being Autism Friendly provides just that! 


What we are doing at Autism Pensacola“Sensory Friendly” event spaces are for anyone feeling overwhelmed and needing a place to “reset.” This simple support allows families to participate in so many of the wonderful events in our area that most of us are lucky to regularly enjoy. Many churches, community activities, festivals, and outdoor sporting events have adapted to the full population of their crowds and have become more accommodating to their crowd’s sensory needs. Autism Pensacola has been asked to sponsor these types of spaces along with our partners at the Sacred Heart Autism Center to provide a safe, calming space for individuals needing to take a break. These spaces include small tents, resting mats,, bubble machines, sound/lighting machines, and low lighting to help with sensory overload. We have created sensory spaces at the Wahoo’s Stadium, annual Steps for Autism Celebrations, The Day of Play, Arcadia Mill, Ice Flyers hockey games, community Halloween and Christmas events, The Historical Trust’s “The Big Draw” festival, and more… 


Check out what other businesses are doing locally: 




Please help us reduce the isolation experienced by so many living with autism. Get to know an incredible person with autism! Help us create a more Autism Friendly Community 

Thank you! 





Check out what others are doing nationally: 

The Philadelphia Eagles Autism Foundation, The Seattle Seahawks The Minnesota Vikings Denver Bronco’s, the New York Giants, Jets MetLife stadium and Steeler’s Heinz FieldDisney, Universal Studios, and Six Flags Target, Tesco, and JCPenny. 











If you would like to learn more about making your business or organization more autism friendly please contact us!