Dr. Wendy Ross, a developmental pediatrician in Philadelphia, founder of the nonprofit Autism Inclusion Resources (AIR) has recently been named a "CNN Hero."
As a doctor who regularly diagnosed children who have autism, Ross was heartbroken to hear stories of social isolation from the families whose children she was treating. Because many children with autism become overstimulated in loud, crowded or new environments, parents often opt to keep the family home rather than experience fun family outings, like going to a ball game. But Dr. Ross knew that isolation didn't serve her patients with autism well in the long run.
"If kids are not in the community, building their skills from very young ages, then there's no reason to expect them to be independent one day," Ross said. "It's a social disability. It needs to be addressed in a social setting."
So in 2007, Ross set out to do just that. Today, her nonprofit, Autism Inclusion Resources, helps families affected by autism navigate social situations such as airport travel, sporting events and museum visits.
Ross believes that exposure to social settings with supports can help children and their parents experience success.
“Attending a practice session on an airplane, for example, breaks down the experience into less stressful and costly bites so that when the real deal comes along kids are feeling ready–and parents are too. Some parents just need confidence to try, some need more active support and strategies,” she explains.
One of Ross’s most innovative partnerships took place with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2012. Ross was able to arm all of the Phillies game day employees — approximately 3,000 people — with information about autism and how to interact with individuals on the spectrum so that everyone from the ticket takers to the hot dog vendors could help create an atmosphere where families feel supported.
To help prepare families for the event, Ross created a booklet with pictures illustrating each step of the game, from arrival and getting a hot dog to the seventh inning stretch. Then she escorts families to their first game, with tickets donated by the Phillies.
What makes the program truly unique is that each family is also provided a clinician at the game who gives additional support if needed. The ultimate goal is that families will have a successful experience and come back to see games on their own—and take their children to other community events.
One of Ross’ other signature programs has been her airport travel program. Using the same principles, she trains airline and TSA staff at major airports and then guides families through a simulated travel experience, including checking in, going through security and boarding a plane. Standing in line and going through the screening process at security can be especially anxiety-provoking for people who have autism. Since 2010, more than 200 families have benefited from this travel initiative.
When training employees of any kind, Ross belives that it’s essential for them to understand that just because a child looks fine, does not mean they may not have a disability. “All behaviors are not created equal or are a parents fault,” she says. “We need to understand the behaviors and support families. Everyone benefits from inclusion.”
In her “spare time,” Ross has also been active working with the inclusion committee of her synagogue Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, PA, working with other lay leaders to increase awareness at the shul. “The same accomodations can help families bring their children to be full participants at synagogue—training of entire staffs, social stories, creating “quiet” spaces where children can take a break if overwhelmed,” she explains.