L-R: Molly Dubuque, Heidi Cooley-Cook (both with UofL); Amber Badgett of Meaningful Day Services and Deborah Morton of FEAT.

When a family member is autistic, routine outings such as a trip to the grocery, the dentist, or a movie theater can be challenging.

UofL is doing its part to help those families through a creative partnership — the Autism Friendly Business Initiative.

The initiative, announced in February, includes the University of Louisville Autism Center (ULAC), a part of the School of Medicine, and the Kentucky Autism Training Center (KATC), a component of the ULAC and part of the College of Education and Human Development.

These centers are joined by Meaningful Day Services and FEAT of Louisville, which has oversight for the program.

The centerpiece of the initiative is a website where families can look for autism-friendly businesses.

“What we found was that families would go to a therapy appointment and then go home,” said Heidi Cooley-Cook, family field training coordinator for KATC. “They weren’t going to the movies or the grocery and, as almost any therapist will tell you, it’s important for individuals to be engaged in their community.”

Businesses can earn an AFBI designation by having at least 80 percent of their employees watch a film and answer questions about how to recognize and respond to the signs of autism. This is level 1 of the AFBI program and it is available now. Soon, two more levels will be introduced. Those levels will require businesses to make environmental changes (level 2) and adopt hiring and training strategies to support people with autism (level 3).

UofL worked closely with its partners to create the training video. In fact, UofL alumnus Cody Clark, who is on the autism spectrum and has dual degrees in theater and marketing, was prominently featured in the final production.

Molly Dubuque, a ULAC behavior analyst, said the idea for the AFBI came about in 2015 when Deborah Morton, executive director for FEAT, put together teams to look at support systems for those with autism.

Dubuque said it was during those meetings that they began to realize that “participation and access to the community” was just as important as treatment.

“Citizenship involves enjoying parks, museums, getting haircuts, going grocery shopping—all of the things that enrich one’s life,” Dubuque said. “It quickly became clear that the best we could do to support families was to open the community to them.”

Nearly everyone who was part of the previously launched Autism Friendly Community program contributed to the AFBI project. That meant numerous meetings to keep the project moving, writing a script, recording and directing the video, designing the AFBI brand and getting input from local businesses and leaders.

“This has been a powerful collaboration,” said Dr. Gregory Barnes, who heads the UofL Autism Center. “It takes a village to build something like this program and we are thrilled to be part of such a worthy initiative.”