15 Tips for Planning an Autism-Inclusive Exchange Program

Four students waiting at the airport
Facilitate a smoother transition into the international experience with these tips, adapted from Autism Network International.
  1. Explain the social features of the program to all participants. Explain ahead of time what participants may encounter on program and what will be expected of them, and offer opportunities to ask questions.
  2. Accommodate sensory sensitivities by discouraging the use of perfume or scented products. If flash photography must be used, ask photographers to ask permission from those who are nearby.
  3. Supply name badges to be worn throughout the program to help people recognize one another.
  4. Discuss acceptable behavior. This could include natural expressions of oneself or needed coping mechanisms, which for autists may include echoing back what is heard or rocking motions. Unacceptable behaviors could include actions that violate other people's personal or property boundaries, prevent others from participating in activities, or cause distress through physical, verbal, or sensory assault.
  5. Provide opportunity, but not pressure, for social interactions. The absence of any expectation or pressure to socialize, and the knowledge that they’re free to withdraw at any time, seems to free many autistic people to want to socialize.
  6. Create color-coded interaction signal badges. Different color badges can mean that interactions are not desired at that point in time, or that others are encouraged to initiate interaction.
  7. Designate a calm, "sensory-friendly" space. Provide an area, ideally one free of harsh lights or loud noises or echoes, which can be used to retreat from sensory overload or social pressures.
  8. Schedule breaks throughout the day.
  9. Explain food options of the host country and alternatives for food intolerances; also discuss how to culturally decline food that is offered but not wanted.
  10. Arrange a peer social mentor who can act as a friendly social translator to explain social cues and nuances that may have been missed in a private, neutral setting.
  11. Provide opportunity for self-disclosure during orientation. For some people with disabilities, sharing about themselves and their disabilities can reduce anxiety and help others to better understand their access needs.
  12. Provide a list of what could go wrong while traveling and living in another country; this information provided in advance can allow a person to plan and also experience relief when common mishaps occur that are not their fault or personal.
  13. Modify program policies upon request such as requiring roommates or curfews as an accommodation for someone who may need more down time, privacy, or who takes a medication that may affect sleep patterns.
  14. Set clear rules for housing such as curfew time, food you can help yourself to, when meals are served, specific chores, behavior during mealtimes, areas of the house not open to guests, computer or electronics use, etc. Modify these as necessary for an accommodation if requested.
  15. Encourage self-advocacy and educate the individual on the behavior code of conduct so these expectations can be met with or without accommodation.