Stephanie Madrigal and her father, Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella, have a deeply personal connection to the Leominster Autism Project, which they co-founded earlier this year.
Madrigal found out her 3-year-old son Jamison is on the autism spectrum.
"As a parent of a somewhat newly diagnosed child, you start to see the world in a very different way," she said. "You start to see that it's more difficult to go out into the community, to take advantage of the things that the community offers, different businesses, things like that. Then you start to think, 'How could things change?'"
Madrigal, above with Mazzarella and Jamison, recalled a visit to a local shoe store that, because of helpful employees, became a positive experience: "I remember I had a difficult time getting shoes for my son because once I brought him into a shoe store, all he wants to do is run because he sees the lanes. That's kind of typical of any 3-and-a-half-year-old, but then it became very difficult to actually have him sit down. And the feeling of the shoe going on, that was very distressing to him. But I was fortunate enough to have a couple of employees that were amazing with him."
After a conversation with her father, who has been mayor of Leominster for 22 years, Madrigal wrote an outline for what became the Leominster Autism Project. She met with Mazzarella and other advocates in the community.
"I did a little research to see if any other locations were doing things for the community," Madrigal said, "and Dad's the one that said, 'It'd be cool to bring the businesses into it, and to have them participating.'"
The Leominster Autism Project was unveiled at a ceremony in February at City Hall. Madrigal and Mazzarella teamed with professionals such as Judy Scola, director and owner of inSync Communication Center and Social/Sensory Gym in Sterling; Nancy Murray, an education professor at Fitchburg State University; Leominster firefighter Lance Mason, father to a son who has autism, and Stacy Maillet, CEO and founder of the Nicholas James Foundation for Autism, which raises money to provide tools and therapies for children with autism.
An hour-long training program was created to "train and educate people on autism," Madrigal said, "but mostly focusing on sensory-processing disorder, which is really what someone would have difficulty with going into public places. That's what creates some of the behaviors that people see."
Roughly two dozen businesses around Leominster have gone through the training to become "autism-friendly." According to Madrigal, the list includes dentist offices, hair salons, restaurants, music and dance schools, The Mall at Whitney Field in Leominster (along with several of its stores), and even departments at Leominster City Hall.
Each location that signs up for the program comes up with a list of accommodations it can make to help people of all ages with autism, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, Asperger syndrome, and more. Accommodations can include turning down music or turning off lights when asked, creating a separate room, or creating charts or social stories to navigate tasks such as visiting the dentist.
And, Madrigal said, many of these things can be done for free.
"The biggest thing is the preparation, getting people prepared before they even go in," she said. "Spontaneity isn't really someone's friend when they have feelings of anxiety."
Once they go through the training, establishments receive stickers to display, noting they are an autism-friendly business, provided by an anonymous donor and Creative Print Products in Leominster.
Madrigal said she feels the program has increased awareness of the autism spectrum and dispelled incorrect information people may have about the developmental disorder.
"It's been great [for] people understanding that their own feeling about what autism was isn't really that," she said. "It's something very different, and it's actually something not very scary or intimidating. You can just tell how happy and excited they are to serve these people and to make their lives easier, once they feel comfortable with understanding."
And, according to Madrigal, a few establishments have seen an increase in business after getting involved with the Leominster Autism Project.
"It's not intimidating," she said. "We walk them through it. We make them feel comfortable, the business owners. We're not going to leave them hanging. The community feels so appreciative that they're doing what they're doing that it's really a positive experience. Parents are not going to expect perfection, especially as they get to be familiar with how things go and how the symptoms manifest, but it's a very positive experience, and a very rewarding experience all around, and they're changing people's lives more than they could ever imagine."
Word of the autism project has spread far beyond Leominster's borders.
"We've gotten phone calls and Facebook messages and emails from people all over who are loving this, wanting it done in their town or city," Madrigal said. "We had someone from Missouri contact me and say, 'We want to start our own. We love your project. We love how you've done it, and we want to do it just like yours.' And they have. They've done a wonderful job. We keep in touch, we share ideas, and it's been great.
"My hope is that other states and cities take it upon themselves to do this," she added. "It's not difficult. It's not that expensive."
And while businesses and people across Leominster have learned more about autism over the past several months, Madrigal said she's learned things as well from both her involvement with the project and her son's diagnosis.
"I went from a teacher who had students in her classroom on the spectrum, with no specific training for it, to someone who lives it every day," she said. "It's definitely going to make me a different teacher, I guess you could say."
She later added, "When I see this project, yes, it was my own feelings as a mother and wanting to help my son, but what drives me is that there are so many out there like my son. There's so many kids like that, and adults, and teenagers, who are really struggling. And when something so simple can be put in place and make their lives better, why wouldn't we do that? So that's what drives me, keeps me going. I admire their strong will, and I don't want them to struggle more than they have to."
For more information on the Leominster Autism Project, call the Leominster Mayor's Office at (978) 534-7500, visit facebook.com/LeominsterAutismProject or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The project's website recently launched at autismfriendlycity.com.