Can inclusion have a bottom-line impact for business? It's a question I think about a lot. I'm an advocate, but I also work in the business world. Can those two worlds meet? Can the business world create value for the community, in a way that also benefits the company? I've always hoped so, and thus I’m always alert for concrete examples in my daily life.
A recent example of this came when I went to the movies a few weeks ago. I don’t go to the movies much lately, and I was going to see a movie I'd already seen, which might seem strange. But there was a reason I was going to see it, and it was autism related. I was indulging in nostalgia for a past special interest, one of my two most stereotypical ones: Dinosaurs, and the Titanic.
When the movie Titanic was re-released, I'd promised myself I’d go see it. In the past, my interest in the Titanic had been deep and emotional, and the movie was no less special to me. But, I’d gotten busy and missed it. Angry at myself for having done so, I vowed that I would not miss the next one. So, when the movie Jurassic Park was re-released in 3-D, I made sure that I went.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and I didn't want to be out very late — so I set myself a very specific window of time in which to see the movie. Looking at my local theaters, I wasn't happy with the options — so I started looking at theaters that were a little bit further out.
One particular theater caught my eye. It's a theater that I have only gone to a handful of times and it's a bit of a drive for me, but it was top of mind for a very specific reason. As you may expect, as a blogger who writes about autism, I have signed up for a number of alerts that notify me of articles and information released about autism.
The corporation that ran this particular theater, AMC, was mentioned in these alerts many, many, times. Why? Through a partnership with the Autism Society of America, they’ve designed a specific program to provide autism-friendly film showings that they call “Sensory Friendly Films.” I get notifications of them almost daily, around the country.
I started to wonder — would the fact that this particular theater had events catered specifically to the needs of people with autism impact a general moviegoing experience for someone like me? I decided to find out. I chose a time within the window and set for myself, and I drove out there.
I got my popcorn and settled down into the cushy seat in the theater, noshing and fiddling with my phone as I waited for the ads to stop, the lights to go down and the coming attractions to start. I was only half listening as they showed to ads for soft drinks, and various entertainment, but my attention was grabbed suddenly, as I heard a familiar word: autism.
A man was on the screen, saying, “My four-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. As a dad you have all these goals and dreams and hopes for your son and you’re faced with the knowledge that he may be dependent on upon you for the rest of his life.” What was this, I wondered? A PSA? I hadn’t seen it before.
A sense of dread fell over me as I waited for what came next. It was mid-April, and I silently berated myself. Didn’t I know better than to venture into an autism-aware environment in the middle of Autism Awareness Month? I should've expected this.
I braced myself for the typical pity and tragedy based messages to come. I waited for potential of an entire group of people to be dismissed based on a diagnostic label, which brands them as being wired differently. I felt exposed, as if I had a big scarlet “A” emblazoned upon my chest marking the as “one of them.” The “others,” who are “not like me.” Those whom the others were united in pitying.
I waited to hear to hear “the nevers.” I waited to hear the words tsunami and tragedy. I waited to have my condition compared to AIDS and cancer, despite the fact that autism is not fatal. I waited for the isolation and fear that I would then feel, wondering what the people around me were thinking in that moment. Was the mark I felt so clearly visible to them? What would happen if it was?
Imagine my surprise when I heard the words that came next:
“I had to first realize that there's nothing wrong with him the way he is, it is the world who view him differently. I love him. My son is fine just the way he is.”
Wait…what? Did I hear this right? Was this actually a PSA that advocating acceptance? They really had my attention now. I was leaning forward in my seat, focus intense. I wanted to see which charity and put out this PSA. Whomever it was, there was a group that was going to get more attention from me. To my surprise, the logo that graced the end of this spot was not that of any major autism charity, but that of the major Fortune 500 Corporation, Mutual of Omaha.
Now my mind was well and truly blown…in a matter of moments, my emotions had swung from acute fear, isolation, and exclusion, to feeling at home. This is what I had expected autism awareness should do, but often fails to do. It’s what those who advocate autism acceptance are trying to create. But it wasn’t a charity that made it happen, it was a corporation. Hmmm…
Soon after, the lights went down and I settled down in my seat with a smile. During a trailer for the upcoming sequel to “Despicable Me,” my thoughts again turned to autism. Playing with fancy new villain-fighting toys, a character had set a desk on fire, prompting a be-goggled, one-eyed yellow minion to burst in, wearing red emergency flashers on his head, mimicking the sound of a siren: “Bee do, Bee do, Bee do!”
I was just thinking how tempting that little tidbit would have been to the mimicry-prone younger me, when I heard an outburst from the back of the auditorium, “Bee Do, Bee Do, Bee Do!” I smiled to myself, hearing in that ebullient cry the call of my tribe. But still, I worried. That was type of thing that tended to get people like me unfavorable attention. By the quiet motherly murmerings I heard afterward, it seemed I was not alone in my worries.
How would the patrons, and the theater employees respond? Would the exposure that the employees had received through the autism-focused sensory friendly films make a difference in how they responded, I wondered? The call came again, slightly more quiet: “Bee do! Bee do! Bee Do!”
I watched for negative response, but after a few minutes, there was none. After a couple more times, my counterpart’s call faded out, as all echoes do, and the movie began. I settled in, feeling among friends. I enjoyed it, as much as I had hoped I would…but walking out, I was thinking not about the movie, but those moments before the movie began.
How much of it was connected? Was it chance that made the audience uncommonly tolerant, or something else? Did AMC consciously choose the Mutual of Omaha spot? I had so many questions. When I got to the car, I pulled out my smart phone. I wanted to learn about the spot that I’d seen. I learned it was part of a series “The Aha Moment.”
After I found the spot I’d seen in the theater, I clicked into the next one in the series, only to be further impressed: It was conducted entirely in sign language. The speaker, who is Deaf, said: “Deaf people are just like people who can hear. They want a family, they want friends, they want the opportunity to go out and experience things and they want respect.”
Watching this, I was reminded of a moment in the autism documentary Wretches and Jabberers, in which one of the stars of the movie, Larry Bissonnette said: “More like you than not!” Yes, it seems we’re not all that different from other members of the disability community. We are all human beings, with more similarities than differences.
I left the theater that day feeling included, treated as part of the human race in a way that is often overlooked when you have been labeled as different. Whatever the reasons behind the events that happened, whether what happened was a random confluence of circumstances, or if it was more directly attributable to conscious choices made by the leadership of AMC, I am left with one final conclusion.
Two brands gave me an experience that I will remember, and thus, have earned a chance at my business. Do inclusive actions impact the choices of a consumer? In this case, I can say absolutely they do!
My first book, Living Independently on the Autism Spectrum, is currently available in e-book format many major retailers, including Books-A-Million, Chapters/Indigo (Canada), Barnes and Noble, and Amazon. Hard copies will be in bookstores June 18, 2013.