Two advocates have made Tulsa autism friendly.
Michelle Wilkerson and Jennifer Sollars Miller are the founders of the Autism Center of Tulsa. They created a logo, shown above, and other tools for businesses to become Autism-Friendly Locations, meaning they are sensitive to individuals with autism.
When you see a child acting out in public, do you immediately judge the family?
Parents of children with autism regularly face this experience while in public.
Tulsa mothers Jennifer Sollars Miller and Michelle Wilkerson, who each have a teenager with autism, want to make families feel more comfortable outside the home.
That’s why they’ve made Tulsa the first Autism-Friendly City to use the “I’m A-OK” logo, a design the mothers created as co-founders of the Autism Center of Tulsa.
In 2005, the two filled a community need by creating the center, which provides parents with resources and support.
Nine years later, Sollars Miller and Wilkerson are expanding further and have given more than 100 Tulsa businesses the tools they need to become “A-OK” locations.
At the same time, children with autism can wear the logo on shirts, stickers and lanyards, or keep a card in wallets, so businesses and the community may recognize this symbol and offer more compassion and patience.
What challenges have you faced that motivated you to create the autism-friendly program?
Wilkerson: I will never forget when my son was little and we were shopping in a large retail store where he was having a meltdown and crying really loudly, and a lady stopped by and recommended that I go to the kitchen aisle to get a wooden spoon and take care of him. She didn’t understand that his behaviors were directly related to his autism because he doesn’t look any different than other kids who don’t have a disability.
Children with autism are often overwhelmed by the sights and noises around them. They need repeated exposure to public places so they can learn to adjust. It’s hard enough for families to take their child with autism out in public, but then to have to try and explain it to everyone else out there, or endure the stares or the comments ... A lot of times, families stay at home and isolate themselves because it is easier. If they do that, it will hurt their child’s ability to become independent.
Are parents and children responsive to the “I’m A-OK” identification?
Sollars Miller: Most of our families want their kids to be identified as having autism. I want people to know my child has autism because it gives a reason for his behavior. Once people are aware of his disability, the more understanding they become.
Wilkerson: People are going to label you no matter what. We just want to give them the right label, a positive one that helps to explain that their behaviors may be a result of their disability and they just need some extra understanding.
How do businesses become autism friendly?
Sollars Miller: When the businesses register as an Autism-Friendly Location, they receive an annual listing in the national directory, a guidebook, window clings and an informational poster. We’re not expecting businesses to become experts in autism. We just want them to recognize the “I’m A-OK” logo and give people with autism the same respect and courtesies received by individuals with easily recognizable disabilities.
We have had an overwhelming response from first responders in Tulsa. The police department, fire department, sheriff’s department and EMSA recognize “I’m A-OK” as the official autism identification in Tulsa.
Are you thinking about expanding to other cities in Oklahoma?
Sollars Miller: Yes. We are currently focusing on Oklahoma, but have already heard from other states wanting to implement the program. To become an Autism-Friendly City, a city must meet certain requirements, which include registering first responders and a certain number of businesses as Autism-Friendly Locations.
Search for an autism-friendly business and find out how to get “I’m A-OK” identification tools at www.autismfriendlylocations.com.