Support in Western North Carolina is growing for those with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder as nonprofits, mental health organizations and neighborhood businesses strive to provide sensory-friendly environments.
“Children can have sensory processing disorder or sensory integration issues all by themselves and not have autistic behaviors, but it does flip. If a child has autism, usually they have sensory processing disorder,” says Janet Opila-Lehman, a naturopathic physician and occupational therapist at WellSpring Wellness Center in Asheville.
Opila-Lehman explains her area of specialization within occupational therapy: “I focus on the bodywork, the hands-on part of it, which helps all of the sensory systems to calm down and be focused.” Her naturopathic treatments are part of a biomedical approach designed to work alongside more traditional treatments. She notes that “biomedical has been around for a long time; it’s a well-established, evidence-based practice.” Opila-Lehman offers presentations on various subjects regarding ASD and SPD, including one titled Autism Health Care — The Natural Way.
Opila-Lehman is one of many volunteers offering a portion of their time at Arms Around ASD, a local nonprofit that serves children, teens and adults with autism spectrum disorder. “People on the autism spectrum who have success in life (and how they define that is getting a job and keeping a job) have developed their executive function skills. Executive function skills are not something we are born with, none of us. It’s something that we all work to develop and hone, probably not even consciously,” says Michele Louzon, founder of Arms around ASD.
Offerings at Arms Around ASD include acupuncture, guided meditation, pet therapy, social skills group, stop-motion animation creation, tai chi/qi gong, yoga and Zumba. “All of those things serve to develop executive function skills, so that has been our push at this point, to offer these services that will develop those skills. And all of those things that we do are also just nice, and they feel good, and people walk out and feel kind of refreshed or calm or grounded,” says Louzon. Arms around ASD is made up of volunteer practitioners, teachers and others who support the ASD community.
Taking an extra step
Select local businesses are taking an extra step to provide a welcoming environment for those with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder. “Anything that changes in their daily routine is a challenge. So once the families get a system put in place, then they try to stay with it as close as they can,” says Opila-Lehman.
So what can be done to make an environment more welcoming and sensory-friendly?
Opila-Lehman suggests walking around and looking at the space with fresh eyes. Are the lights too bright? Is the music too loud? Are the textures gentle to the touch? Those in retail can go a step further and provide a space for children while parents are shopping within sight. “You can take a corner, even a closet, at a business and make it a safe space. It doesn’t have to be large, but nice colors and quiet music and a box of tactile feelies or just a special space [help],” says Opila-Lehman. “So, if they’re working with the parents, maybe retail or buying something, and the child needs a space, it’s an easy corner to set up.”
Veronica Coit, a stylist at Asheville-based WestSide Shears, offers haircuts for children with special needs on Sundays, when the salon is closed. “Basically, I offer a quiet, safe space,” says Coit. “I’m able to lock the door and turn the lights down. We talk throughout the whole haircut. I never touch or change tools without telling them what I’m doing.” Coit joins children on the floor during the haircut if needed, provides the option of watching a children’s TV show and offers breaks. “I’m not going to get impatient or rushed. I book a full hour, so that way I can take my time.”
Osega Gymnastics in Mills River holds a free, drop-in open gym time for children with special needs. During this time, there are no other programs taking place in the facility. All children with special needs are welcome to attend.
Brandon Hudson offers therapeutic yoga sessions for children with special needs, including ASD and SPD, at Black Mountain Yoga. “Children that have special needs like this, they often have a lot of anxiety. So we focus a lot on breath, on breathing, cueing them to take a deep breath, practicing breathing in a very quiet, controlled and safe environment. So when they start to feel anxious in an environment that’s not in their control, they can use these strategies and techniques of breathing to help them calm and focus and center,” says Hudson. Private sessions feature gentle warmups, breath work, partner activities and a visualization or relaxation exercise.
Hudson also offers a yoga teacher training course for teachers and parents. “It has a yoga therapy component to it, and so trainees that come to the training will learn how to do lesson planning to address a certain need, whether it be a child that has autism or a child with sensory processing or a child with attention and focus needs,” says Hudson.
Regal Biltmore Grande Stadium 15 & RPX movie theater holds a My Way Matinee once a month. During this time, movies are shown in a sensory-friendly, welcoming environment. The theater is not as dark as usual, the volume is lower, and children are free to clap, cheer, sing and make other noises. This month’s offering, The Star: The Story of the First Christmas, will show Nov. 15 at 10:30 a.m.
Anne Finch, an Asheville mother of an 11-year-old son with ASD, explains that when her son was younger, it helped when business owners would check in regarding her child’s comfort level and adjust the environment accordingly. “If you meet the most vulnerable person in the room [on their terms],” she says, “everyone will be OK.”
WHAT: My Way Matinee
WHERE: Regal Biltmore Grande Stadium 15 & RPX, 292 Thetford St., Asheville
WHEN: Monthly. Showtimes available at regmovies.com/promotions/my-way-matinee
COST: $6.50 per person
WHAT: Autism Health Care— The Natural Way presentation by Janet Opila-Lehman
WHERE: WellSpring Wellness Center, 966 Tunnel Road, Asheville
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 13, 6:30- 8 p.m.
COST: Free. RSVP to Dr.Janet@WNCNaturopathicMedicine.com
WHAT: Special needs class
WHERE: Osega Gymnastics, 24 Sterling Place, Mills River
WHEN: Saturdays, 1-2 p.m.
WHAT: Therapeutic yoga — private sessions with Brandon Hudson
WHERE: Black Mountain Yoga, 116 Montreat Road, Black Mountain
WHEN: Upon availability
COST: $60 for 45 minutes. Includes 30-minute session and 15-minute debriefing with parent.