Parents, teachers and health care providers see it daily – no 2 children are the same in how they learn and process the world around them.
Now, the rest of the world, including the world of business, is starting to take note and be more inclusive.
During this Autism Awareness Month, Gina Bannevich is one architect of change worth saluting.
Gina is marketing director for Belden Village Mall in Canton, which is part of the Starwood Retail Partners group of shopping center properties. As the mother of a son with autism, Gina knows loud, noisy, crowded public places can be difficult for kids with autism and other sensory processing disorders.
Four years ago, she suggested Belden Village offer a “Soothing Santa” experience so children, like her son, Dominick, now 10, could enjoy a visit with Santa Claus just like other kids during the holiday season.
“We took appointments and opened the mall early for these families,” said Gina. “It was a calm environment. Less waiting. No bright lights. Siblings were also welcome. It was a game changer. Families loved it.”
Gina said Starwood management was very supportive and, over the years, about 30 other malls nationwide have added similar programs. This spring, Belden Village added a Soothing Bunny program.
Akron Children’s has sponsored the programs at Belden Village for several years.
“Kids with autism and other special health needs can definitely find sensory stimuli within the environment really overwhelming,” said Dr. Jessica Foster, director of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics at Akron Children’s Hospital. “That can lead to really challenging behaviors, meltdowns and sometimes even aggression for kids.”
Gina says it’s not just the right thing to do, but it’s a smart business to be inclusive in today’s world, especially where tales of good – and bad – customer service are so easily shared by customers via social media.
“Businesses don’t exist in a vacuum separate from the community and the people who work at these businesses live in the community,” Gina said. “The moms and dads and grandparents who appreciate us for offering a program like Soothing Santa or Soothing Bunny will come back and shop with us.”
Dominick, a 3rd grader at Strausser Elementary School in Massillon, is in many ways a typical 10-year-old boy who loves Legos, dinosaurs and trains, and pursuing adventures with his younger sister, Giavonna. But, like many kids on the autism spectrum, he has difficulty with transitions and does not do well if he gets too tired or if a well-planned day takes a detour.
Gina and her husband, Jason, sought testing for Dominick when he was 2 and the autism diagnosis followed.
Dr. Robert Hull, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Akron Children’s, helped guide the family through the testing and early intervention services.
“It can be overwhelming,” said Gina. “You really need someone to help walk you through it and Dr. Hull did.”
After doing well at the Golden Key Center for Exceptional Children, Dominick has successfully made the transition to his public school with neurodevelopmental experts at Akron Children’s continuing to offer testing and support, including guidance on his Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
“I hope the world is becoming more sensitive to people with special needs,” said Gina. “It’s interesting to think that every day we ask Dominick to understand the world around him. Some days, it would be nice if the world took a minute to understand him.”