Angela Hart and her 21-year-old son, Dustin, stand in front of a Dunkin' Donuts store with an Autism Welcomed Decal on display. "I really wasn't expecting it to take off like it did,” she said. "It’s a nice welcoming wish come true.” (Photo courtesy of Angela Hart)
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More Central Florida Businesses Display Autism Welcomed Decal

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When Angela Hart, 49, goes to everyday public places with her 21-year-old autistic son, Dustin, she said she is not always met with a welcoming feeling.

“I was finding it very difficult going into places with him. I felt walking in there I shouldn’t have even bothered,” Hart said.

Inspired by that difficulty, in 2013, the Eustis, Florida, woman decided to create an “Autism Welcomed Decal” that signaled a welcoming and friendly environment. Hart estimates over 100 decals have been put up by business owners, restaurants and other public places across central Florida and even other states.

“We’re just like everybody else, and we want to be able to walk into these places, and not be started at and not be asked to leave,” Hart said.

The movement is different from any other type of autism-friendly sticker. Other stickers primarily signal a sensory friendly environment rather than a welcoming place, Hart said. Her decals do not mean that the environment will be sensory friendly, but that the management will be understanding.

The first of the decals was put up about four years ago at Lake City Bowl, 347 SW state road 247, where Hart holds an annual event for families with autistic children in July.

Lake City Bowl owner Brian Meek said it doesn’t change the way the business is run, but that he and his employees welcome autistic patrons anytime.

“The sticker on the door hopefully would help those that maybe have a child with autism, who feels sometimes like they’re being distracting to other people around them, that it’s okay to come in with other people here,” Meek said.

Also sporting an Autism Welcomed Decal is Lake City’s Texas Roadhouse, 3039 U.S. Highway 90 W. After dining there, Hart presented the restaurant with a sticker.

“She was happy with the service, and the server took really good care of them and treated them appropriately,” manager Crystal Ratliff said. “That meant a lot to her and her group so she presented us with the sticker.”

Ratliff said she hopes the sticker will indicate that autistic persons will be treated fairly.

“We want them to be able to go out and enjoy their dinner and not have all the stress, the things they deal with in other places,” Ratliff said.

However, for 49-year-old Cheryl Russell, the Alachua County Autism Parent Support Group leader and a parent of an autistic child, thinks without proper personnel training the decal wouldn’t make any difference, as autistic persons are already supposed to be accepted everywhere according to the American Disabilities Act.

“A [sticker] should not make any difference here,” she said. “Unless that sticker comes with an education that teaches each person in that establishment how to respond to a person with disabilities. If [they’re] understanding of what that person’s needs are, then they will know how to respond in certain situations. If they have not been educated, then that sticker doesn’t mean anything.”

A 32-year-old autistic Gainesville resident, whose name has been withheld for privacy, said that although she doesn’t feel unwelcome in public places, she can see how the sticker could be a positive thing for some.

“I think it can be comforting as an autistic person or as a parent of an autistic child to see this sticker and have some confidence that the staff will be respectful,” she said. “But the sticker itself doesn’t ensure a respectful establishment. What are public spaces who use this sticker actually doing to be inclusive of autistic patrons?”

Noise levels and flickering lights don’t communicate a welcoming environment sensory-wise, she said, and most places are not built with the neurology of an autistic person in mind, no matter if there is a sticker on the door.

“If it isn’t sensory friendly, then autism isn’t really welcome there,” she said.

About Savannah Austin

Savannah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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3 comments

  1. I’d really like to know that my symbol has touched some of you in a “Positive” way. If you have anything nice to say…Please Share . Your Hugs are Appreciated right now .
    Love #SMAARTMom
    ———————————————————————————————————————–Although, I can’t say after I saw this story it completely made me smile. The story was well written, but it broke my heart to Read how individuals, who are walking in my shoes.. . Basically considered my symbol not worth anyone’s time and not Autism Welcoming because I don’t ” Demand” that these wonderful businesses make their places sensory friendly or train about autism ? I would Love to see EVERY BUSINESS IN THE ENTIRE WORLD be “Sensory Friendly.” But, REALISTICALLY…. That is not going to happen. APRIL IS AUTISM AWARENESS & ACCEPTANCE MONTH . Why does it make everyone smile if a business places an autism awareness ribbon at their business. That it’s not questioned? It’s a message usually, taken as this place Supports Autism, How Awesome!
    Yet, A place that gives my Symbol a PERMANENT HOME, which also promotes Autism Support AND Autism Acceptance, It’s BELITTLED? And no less, but from the very individuals I created this very symbol for ? If any one visits http://www.autismwelcomed.com , Immediately and clearly I state that following the decal may not always be at a sensory friendly place. Teaching our guys and girls social skills are extremely important, and what better way to do it , than those “EVERY DAY” Places we enter. I did create a video as well that explains what I’m doing and shows a number of places who have already given the symbol a home. Please take a moment to watch this, before you judge this heart-warming & welcoming symbol. Thank You.
    AWD Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-JOFsSgiKM&t=133s

    Why is it when someone tries to do something Positive and Unconditionally Loving must they have to defend themselves and in this case….An Autism Welcoming Smile ;) Doesn’t anyone remember the Yellow Happy Face Symbol ???? It wasn’t A Not- Profit, an Organization, a business…It was a feeling. A Smile to help spread just that, a Smile…A Happy Feeling.
    I am trying to help our guys & girls to learn to cope with the places that aren’t going to be easy. And as for educating these places. How do you educate welcoming, and most people already know the signs of autism. Hello, Has anyone seen the rate of autism lately ? Not to mention, the majority of places who have given my symbol a permanent home know or have family members who have autism. However, If someone wanted to get more informed about autism , they are always welcome to join an Autism Welcomed Decal Time Out & Test Drive…. Here they can learn from the best teachers… The Autism Families that do Love what I’m doing and Love, Love, LOVE to be greeted by my Symbol when they enter those every day places that we all enter .
    So , Thank You for the enlightening story Savanna, truly . Nicely written. But, to those who don’t care for my symbol. I’m sorry.
    I thought we had at least one thing in common…. Besides being Mom’s of individuals with autism. I thought , We ALL wanted Acceptance. The bigger picture is that. I’m so sorry you don’t see this. But as hurt as I feel; I’ll not a quitter. So for my Awesome Son, Dustin and the Families and Places that believe in what I’m doing….. The ones who Believe In ME.
    Stay tuned….. I will bring you another New Permanent Home Soon !!!
    Hug You Soon :)
    #SMAARTMomStrong
    #AutismWelcomedDecal
    “OPENING DOORS, OPENING HEARTS, & CREATING SMILES!”

  2. Michelle King-Best

    I think it’s easy to be critical of a movement if they haven’t gone out themselves and faced how difficult to spread the word of having a welcome environment without demanding an owner of a business changes their daily operating practices. She is spreading education and awareness….. which is never easy. With that being said, the work Angela does is so important and appreciated. All steps made in the right direction are positive ones in my opinion. Angela & Dustin truly are making the world a better place.

  3. I think what she is doing is amazing and exactly what I am trying to do with my son. I mainstream him cause I want him to learn to live in the real world on his own and as a child that can be very challenging for him and it also may include breakdowns because of it. It’s nice to know that place can accept my son for who he is and it helps teach him that it’s ok to be who he is in the “real world”. As to the negative comments i don’t really think they understand the concept. Keep on doing what you are we all need that. Thank you Angela and Dustin for opening doors.

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