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How Austin Became Autism Friendly

Ethan Watters | May 11, 2020


For a small town, Austin, Minn. is making some big changes to better the community. As a tour guide at the SPAM Museum, Samuel Ehret is part of a larger project to help make Austin more autism-friendly

Visit the SPAM® Museum in downtown Austin, Minnesota and the smiling face at the door is likely to be Samuel Ehret. Just out of high school, Samuel is tall with a mop of blond hair and a winning smile. He is knowledgeable about all things SPAM®, even his bedroom is something of a “shrine” to the iconic American brand. Being a museum guide requires him to socially interact with strangers all day, which makes this an unusual job for someone with autism. The disorder, which Ehret was diagnosed with as a toddler, is characterized by delayed language development, sensory sensitivities and difficulty navigating social situations. With over 100,000 yearly visitors from around the world, the SPAM® Museum is perhaps the most socially complex location in all of Austin.

“At first I was very nervous,” Ehret remembers with a grin. “I was very jittery. I could barely speak. But now it’s like almost second nature to me. But the other people at the museum were incredibly supportive. I like to call it a ‘SPAMily.’ Because they’re almost like a family joined together. If someone needs help, they’ll help you. And if anyone is having a tough time, someone will say, ‘Hey, you doing all right?’”

As remarkable as it is, Ehret’s story of finding acceptance and community in Austin isn’t an unusual one these days. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of a number of parents, teachers, local philanthropists and other community leaders this small town has become nationally known for its efforts to embrace those with autism. Those efforts included reducing the stigma surrounding the disorder, creating programs and other resources for parents and children and teaching local business owners about ways of accommodating autistic customers.

Parents Becoming Advocates

Sarah Ehret remembers her dawning understanding that something was off when Samuel was a baby. He sometimes cried inconsolably and he wasn’t hitting the normal benchmarks of development. When Ehret happened to read a Life magazine article that listed the ten early signs of autism, she understood what was happening.

“When you get that diagnosis, you think, I can’t do this. I didn’t pray for a special needs child,” she recalls. “That’s for somebody else. I am not strong enough for this. I don’t have the skills or the time.”

Not long after Sarah’s revelation, another local mother, Mary Barinka, went through similar stages of discovery with her daughter. Barinka noticed that her daughter seemed to be slow to learn to crawl and at 18 months hadn’t yet learned to walk. More concerning still, she seemed to be losing some of the few words and communication gestures that she had learned.

“If a child loses skills at that age, it is a huge red flag for autism,” Barinka says. “The more I learned and researched, the more her condition pointed towards autism.”

It took Barinka and Ehret, individually, no time at all to spring into action, first by learning everything they could about the disorder and what treatments were available. It was also not long before Barinka and Ehret found each other through mutual friends in the community.

“I can still remember our first phone call,” Barinka says. “My daughter was two and Samuel was three. It was so nice to find someone that I could talk to and who was on the same path.”

I’m very proud of our small little town. And so when I go places I’ll ask people: ‘Did you know Austin, Minnesota is autism-friendly?’ It’s a big deal

Sarah Ehret

Both Barinka and Ehret, like many parents of children with special needs, quickly learned to become fierce advocates. They worked with local therapists, doctors and the school system to ensure their children were getting the best opportunities. But as their children grew, they realized that there was an even larger task on their plate. All the individual help and attention would only go so far if their children didn’t have a larger social world where they could find success, understanding and community.

In 2009, when her daughter was six years old, Barinka was given the opportunity to partner with the Hormel Historic Home and create a summer day camp program for children with autism. Retired Hormel Foods executive Gary Ray and his wife Pat generously funded the project. “After the success of that camp,” Barinka says, “things really started to roll.”

Indeed, that camp was the beginning of hundreds of activities and projects that would take place in the coming years, many of them in the newly expanded Hormel Historic Home. Now, each month the calendar for those with autism is packed with local events including day camps, “respite evenings” for parents, art workshops and other programs and gatherings. What they’ve accomplished in Austin in a little over a decade is remarkable.

Barinka, who was a Hormel Foods marketing executive, is now a part-time employee of the nonprofit Hormel Historic Home, where she is the autism resource liaison for the town. In 2016, she began a new project to certify businesses in Austin as “autism friendly.” To get that designation, the owner and employees go through an educational program so they can learn how someone with autism might react to the business’s environment and the best ways to create a calm and soothing space.

Thanks to the Autism Friendly Austin Initiative, 28 restaurants, hair salons, dentist offices, theaters and other businesses are now more accessible to both children with autism and their families.

Mary Barinka and Sarah Erhert at the Hormel Historic Home Autism Holiday Party

Mary Barinka and Sarah Ehret at the Hormel Historic Home Autism Holiday Party

“Creating autism friendly spaces might also help a lot of people who perhaps were never diagnosed,” says Ehret. “They may just realize that loud noises or bright lights make them uncomfortable and they feel better if they can have a quiet space. I’m very proud of our small little town. And so when I go places I’ll ask people: ‘Did you know Austin, Minnesota is autism-friendly?’ It’s a big deal.”

There is plenty of individual credit to go around, but it is the weaving together of all the local organizations and individuals that has been the driving force for change. Current and former Hormel Foods employees have donated money and time. The Hormel Foundation, the Hormel Historic Home and The United Way of Mower County all pitched in. Teachers, counselors and local business leaders did their part. Then of course there are the parents and caregivers who have met through this network and shared endless amounts of information and support.

“All the families we have counseled and mentored will reach out to other families,” says Barinka. “It’s brought the community together and created a positive ripple effect that benefits everyone. I didn’t even know what autism was when I first started on this journey. I’ve learned an incredible amount about humanity and how the brain works. I’ve learned to not judge so quickly when I see someone or something. I pause and I think, could it be that they’re struggling? Now I have a whole different perspective.”

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