Visit Visalia becomes Certified Autism Center, city takes next step

Sep. 10—Tourist information center Visit Visalia has become the first destination marketing organization in California to be recognized as a Certified Autism Center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).

At a Friday morning press conference, Executive Director Nellie Freeborn explained Visit Visalia's staff and governing board of directors completed special training that addresses the common behaviors and sensory considerations that may be necessary for people on the autism spectrum. According to the IBCCES, autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the world, and one out of 54 children will be diagnosed. A further one out of six people will have a sensory need or sensitivity.

This includes Freeborn's daughter, who also places on the spectrum.

"Like so many, I knew what autism was — sort of," Freeborn said "But I didn't know much about it until I became part of the statistic."

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can often pose a challenge to families as they travel. It varies from person to person, but such things as lighting, menus, noises, and long waits can become a hassle. If a child with on the spectrum is having a bad day, it also can often mean that a family member has to stay behind with the child.

However, small changes like "fast passes" booked ahead at some museums, parks and other places can reduce the anxiety of a long wait in line. Meanwhile, restaurant staff allowing a family to bring outside food for someone on the spectrum while the rest order off the menu can allow the family to share the bond of a meal where everyone is included and present. For businesses where accommodations may be harder implement, there is always the opportunity for empathy, compassion and patience, Freeborn said.

Placing on the spectrum has come with challenges for her family, but Freeborn says it's also given her a perspective on how to help in the effort for inclusivity in Visalia and Tulare County.

"Travel has been an integral part of that for our family," Freeborn said of stability. "Understanding personal challenges and families' space when travelling, I've also felt Visalia was an absolutely ideal location for families with ASD."

Now, the City of Visalia appears to be getting in on the opportunity to accommodate and be more open to people with autism. For his part, Mayor Steve Nelsen took the course on life with ASD and is encouraging businesses to do the same.

"Coming on board, being one of the board members and taking this class time and learning about autism was very eye opening for me," Nelsen said. "But what really makes me proud is our city has always been one that wants everyone to be involved. They want everybody to have the same opportunity."

Visit Visalia concluded the meeting with the presentation of the Spectrum Leadership Award to recognize six local businesses that made the step towards inclusivity and consideration for those with ASD. These included: Visalia Adventure Park; Comfort Suites Visalia; the Lamp Liter Inn; Naturally Nuts; Visalia Oaks Golf Course; Visalia Adventure Park; Visalia Marriott at the Convention Center and; the Wyndham Visalia Hotel.