Reimagining Inclusion for Autism-Friendly Spaces | Whitney Ellenby

The world is becoming more aware of autism, but are our public spaces truly welcoming to families affected by it? Whitney Ellenby will share eye-opening stories of the challenges faced by families with autistic children when navigating everyday outings. But this talk isn’t just about problems – it’s about solutions. Discover how businesses and organizations can establish “sensory set-asides,” providing safe and comfortable spaces for everyone to enjoy.

Key Takeaways:

Autism Advocacy: Learn about the real-life challenges and triumphs of families with autistic children.

Sensory Set-Asides: Discover a simple but powerful solution for creating inclusive spaces.

Community Building: Understand the importance of fostering connections and belonging for everyone.

Join us at TEDxLogan Circle 2024 to hear Whitney Ellenby's inspiring message and be part of the movement towards a more inclusive future.

Share in two to three sentences what your talk is about.

My talk addresses the stark, often painful realities faced by families with autistic children when they venture out into the community, and how “exclusive set-asides” can remediate them.Even with society’s heightened awareness of autism, families are still regularly ejected from venues for disruptive behavior, and endure withering stares from bystanders that make them retreat back home. But with the right ingredients, venues can establish regular “set asides” that truly accommodate this demographic in ways that ensure they feel welcome, which in turn generates repeat business for years to come.

Based on your talk, what industries are you rethinking innovation?

The range of industries that can benefit from providing “sensory set asides” is broader than most realize and include churches, synagogues, museums, gyms, public splash parks, amusement parks, libraries, grocery stores, restaurants, theaters and beyond. Any venue where people regularly gather is ripe for designating a couple hours per month to ensure that all families impacted by autism can not only access the venue, but are assured of their right to “pay & stay,” a benefit the vast majority of the general population regularly enjoys.

Share two or three words that best describe who you are as a person.

Transparent, Unconventional, Nurturing

Describe your feelings about the TEDxLogan Circle event.

I have an affinity for TEDxLogan Circle because it schedules just enough diverse topics to get people thinking, without being overwhelmed by the volume of content. The organizers provide ample preparation and coaching to ensure quality presentations, and build in time for speakers to connect with audience members who may want to discuss ideas more deeply following the presentations. Most importantly, the local emphasis of the event – and size and scope of the audience – creates a strong sense of community among attendees and speakers which I believe is vital for the genuine exchange of ideas. Community is what’s most lacking in today’s fast-paced, digitized world, so an in-person gathering with a common mission is more essential than ever in preserving the qualities which make us thrive as humans ~ seeing, listening, and being heard.

What do you believe are the key trends shaping the future of your industry?

One trend shaping sensory-friendly opportunities for the autism community and others who benefit from them is that they have recently come under criticism for being “ableist" (discriminating against those with disabilities by inferring inferiority of ability) or “segregationist,” (separating out a particular demographic for separate treatment). As someone who has run recreational events for the autism community for over 15 years, I strenuously disagree with these critiques. Today’s emphasis is on inclusion of all persons within the mainstream population regardless of identity or ability. That sounds great in theory, but in practice it still leaves huge portions of society eclipsed. What the insistence on full inclusion overlooks is that for a child intimidated by crowds, terrorized by certain features of a venue, or disinclined to follow accepted protocols, the notion of “open to all” is not necessarily “accessible to all.” I hope to dispel any stigma or misapprehension regarding separate “set asides” for those with unconventional fears and behaviors. As a society our trending cultural mantra is “you do you!” ~ so “set asides” provide the chance for families with autism to “just do them!”

What is “your why?”

I have a 23-year-old son with autism, Zack, who is my muse, my teacher, my best friend. In the course of raising him, I’ve endured countless requests to vacate public venues, been scorned about his unusual behaviors, and have experienced general misunderstanding of his needs. I understand intimately the isolation, alienation and genuine grief with which families contend on a regular basis. Years ago, I made it my goal to alleviate this widespread suffering through as many means possible, which has included writing a nonfiction book, opinion editorials, live storytelling, and organizing exclusive “Autism Ambassador” events where families can recreate on their own disabled terms in a “room of one’s own.” As long as individuals and their families continue to suffer from stigma, missed opportunities and fear of articulating the corresponding grief and isolation, I will continue to be a lighting rod on their behalf.

What does being an effective leader mean to you?

I consider the most vital trait of leadership to be a willingness to buck trends which aren’t working and think creatively about what truly works in addressing challenges for any given population. I believe a leader is transparent about the truth of a given situation no matter how painful or unpopular, because we cannot conquer a problem if we can’t speak candidly about it. I also believe in staying open to different ideas and considering opposing points of view, but not yielding one’s principles if they are firmly held, demonstrably sound, and morally coherent.

What is your favorite way to rest and unwind?

I actually love to watch both documentaries and fictitious movies about dark, disturbing topics such as unscrupulous politics; greed and corruption; sexual assault; grave illness; mental health disorders, etc. because I like to immerse myself in other people’s lived experience in order to better understand their respective ordeals. Although I sometimes get traumatized or lose sleep, I would rather know about human suffering, even in its worst forms, than be uninformed. Watching depictions of experiences I have not personally encountered also allows me to maintain perspective when I’m struggling, drawing strength from others and framing my pain as: “If that rape survivor summoned the strength to get out of bed, put one foot in front of the other, confront her assailant in court, etc., I owe it to her to power through my own adversity.”

How do you maintain your enthusiasm in your industry?

Thanks to my ongoing recreational events, I am always witnessing an influx and defection of autistic children into and out of the group. Some families depart the events because their children are capable of mainstreaming with the general public after sufficient exposure to event venues, while others have remained in the group since its inception. Since autism is on the rise (1 in every 36 children born today has autism), I gain at least two to three new families per week into my ambassadors group. This steady stream of incoming families allows me to visit, observe and assist children all along the spectrum with their myriad needs to help get them where they need and long to go. I find autism fascinating in that no two children are ever alike ~ each has his/her own phobias, idiosyncrasies, intense passions, etc., so I revel in discovering those differences for each and every “ambassador.” Notably, since I don’t have any family living in my area, it’s always been crucial for my own well-being to have a sense of community. The ambassador families provide me with a close-knit family network, so as often as I’m told I’m “rescuing” them from loneliness, they are doing the same for me.

What is your favorite local business in D.C. or Logan Circle?

I have always loved “Story District” in D.C., which is a unique business that recruits both amateur and experienced people from the local population to rehearse, craft, and deliver dynamic stories on different monthly themes during a live show performance before hundreds of attendees. To me, public speaking is at its best when it’s a collaborative effort, and some of the most poignant, intimate and astounding stories have been revealed by total strangers who are willing to share a piece of their life in public.
Picture of Whitney Allenby

Whitney Allenby

Whitney Ellenby is a former US DOJ Disability Rights Attorney and author of the award-winning nonfiction book, Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain (2018). She’s the proud mother of a 23-year-old son with autism and an autism expert who’s contributed to numerous media outlets including The Washington Post, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and PBS NewsHour. Ellenby is also the founder of “Autism Ambassadors,” a philanthropic venture through which she provides exclusive recreational events for over 1,000 families in the DMV area. Ellenby was honored with a “Community Leader” award for her advocacy for the autism community of Maryland and was featured as a “Local Hero” by her MD Congressman.

Join us at TEDxLogan Circle 2024 to hear Whitney Ellenby's inspiring message and be part of the movement towards a more inclusive future.