Autism-friendly park: Brimbank welcome for kids who like to follow the script

Luke Williamson (left) and twin brother Ben play at Brimbank Park.
Luke Williamson (left) and twin brother Ben play at Brimbank Park. Photo: Joe Armao

The sun has broken through the clouds, the laundry is done and everyone has cabin fever. Time for a trip to the park?

But spontaneity doesn't work for Samantha Williamson and her twin four-year-old boys, Luke and Ben.

Like many children who have an autism spectrum disorder, the boys like to follow routines or patterns. They get very anxious when situations are unknown or unpredictable. If a loud noise blares, for example, they freeze up with fear.

Ben Williamson and his mother Samantha look at their Brimbank park script.
Ben Williamson and his mother Samantha look at their Brimbank park script. Photo: Joe Armao

So Williamson uses simple stories – called social scripts – with her sons to rehearse future events she anticipates they might find difficult. For an overseas family holiday she made her own script, using simple text and pictures of aeroplanes and baggage carousels to acquaint them with unfamiliar concepts.

Now trips to the park will become easier for children like Luke and Ben, with Parks Victoria creating a social script for Brimbank Park in Melbourne's northwest, which had already been designed to be inclusive of children with disabilities. Scripts will be created for other parks if this trial is a success.

Parents can access the (deliberately low-tech) script online, which has photos of things their children might encounter at the park – a bird's nest, the sandpit, the planes overhead – and simple text.

They choose what seems relevant and can print out a little booklet.

"This is an opportunity for them to explore and have fun. My boys definitely miss out because it's harder to do day-to-day things with a child that has autism," says Williamson.

These scripts are part of a broader push for public parks, beaches and even shopping centres to be more accessible to people with disabilities. Many national parks now have all-terrain wheelchairs to use on bushwalks, and volunteers that will help vision-impaired visitors go bushwalking, said Parks Victoria inclusion manager John Kenwright.

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A noisy, busy environment can create a sensory overload which many with autism find difficult. Some cinemas now run "sensory friendly" films, where the lights are turned up and the sound turned down. The Melbourne Museum and National Gallery also hold autism-inclusive events.

The Brimbank Park script has been developed with Amaze, an autism advocacy organisation. Using social scripts is a common technique to alleviate anxiety, particularly when moving from one place to another, says community engagement manager Deirdre Hardy.

About 50 per cent of Australians have or know someone on the autism spectrum, according to new polling from Amaze.

Ben and Luke Williamson (centre and right) play at Brimbank park.
Ben and Luke Williamson (centre and right) play at Brimbank park. Photo: Joe Armao

But nearly three-quarters of the 1000 people polled said autism and associated behaviours were still misunderstood by the broader community. Only one in three said they had an understanding of how to support people on the autism spectrum.

Tania Cuni's eight-year-old twin sons Michael and Joseph are both on the autism spectrum. Using the Brimbank Park script made them feel welcome and supported, she said.

"Often the children are so anxious they are not able to enjoy themselves when they go out, so we don't those opportunities to just relax and have fun. This park allows us to have a positive experience."

The autism script for Brimbank Park is deliberately low-tech.
The autism script for Brimbank Park is deliberately low-tech.  Photo: Joe Armao

Amaze will host the Victorian Autism Conference in September, which goes even further to make participants with autism feel welcome. This includes social scripts, a quiet room, a "move if you need to" policy in sessions where people are welcome to stand, sit or lie down, and a sensory map to indicate high and low sensory areas.

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