Can Glasgow Become An Autism Friendly City?

Back in April, Glasgow City Council hosted an event in the City Chambers, proposing to make Glasgow the first autism-friendly city centre in the UK. The workshop on April 24th, organised in partnership with Autism Network Scotland, also concerned proposals made by more than twenty organisations to look at making Glasgow an inclusive, family-friendly location.

The council aims to raise awareness of autism and also provide family and training staff with information and understanding of the condition. Overall, the proposal hopes to improve the underlying reputation of Glasgow as an autism-friendly city, and also improve the experiences of autistic people and their families or carers during their visit to the city centre, which already attracts around 55 million visits each year.

Working with the business community, the council’s focus lies on high footfall locations such as shopping centres, transport hubs and museums. The plan is made up of five objectives to help promote an autism-friendly city centre. These include: creating a good customer experience and promoting good customer care; providing useful guidance and information to autistic people when any challenges arise in the city centre; effectively training staff with greater awareness of autism in order to be more confident in their approach to individual situations; to work within the limits of business’ physical environments to make reasonable and appropriate adaptations; and finally, for organisations to raise awareness of autism, promoting greater understanding by sharing information with the wider visitor base.

For Glasgow, things are already off to a good start. The city hosts monthly film screenings for both adults and children with autism at the award-winning Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), the first cinema in the UK to earn Glasgow the Autism Friendly Award. GFT have, in fact, been running these monthly screenings for the past four years, so the city council’s proposals for an autism-friendly city shows that they want to follow in the footsteps of Scotland’s oldest independent cinema. GFT’s approach to autism-friendly screenings includes slightly lowering the volume, keeping the stair lights switched on and providing dimmed house lights, and also trained facilitators who answer questions at the end of each film. These are sensible features for autistic people who tend to not only experience sensory overload, but also isolation within their social surroundings. These careful yet modest changes to light and sound can allow people to better ease themselves into their physical environment and relax more during the film. By adding ‘autism facilitators’ for question-taking at the end, it adds a clever structure to a typical social setting and increases chance for social inclusion.

If we consider a similar approach outside the cinema, within the city centre itself, we can begin to understand why city centres can be a challenging environment for autistic people. They can be busy but also isolating for autistic people unless they are with family or a carer – and even then they can be over-stimulating. By carefully managing public areas such as museums, shopping centres and transport hubs, without necessarily needing to remove too much stimuli – instead playing about with it – busy cities can become much easier places to navigate and engage with, without compromising tourist numbers in any way.

For both the city council and businesses concerned, the proposals for Glasgow centre around one thing: promoting ease. In my view, it’s looking good for the people of Glasgow. With the right amount of care, funding, and staff training, Glasgow City Council can definitely promise both a much more inclusive, relaxing and friendly experience for autistic people visiting the city centre while still maintaining its 55 million visits each year. These business proposals may in fact contribute to an increase in visits each year, and we may eventually see other cities in the UK follow our lead. It will certainly help to maintain Glasgow’s image as a friendly city to visit.

[Murray McKinstray]

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