Presenter: Neal Howard
Guest: Topher Wurtz
Guest Bio: Topher Wurtz is an autism dad and a career media and technology company exec. He is applying his professional experience to a very personal issue, autism, to improve life for millions of autism families. He is the Autism Village founder and offers a better understanding of the obstacles in daily life for the 3 million U.S. families who are living with autism. Autism Village is in the midst of it’s first release of a new Mobile App that will work like Yelp or TripAdvisor to help everyone in the autism community.
Segment overview: Topher Wurtz talks about how businesses can be more sensitive to Autistic patrons and co-workers. Also discussed is how the Autism Village App is used to help families locate “Autism Friendly” establishments.
Health Professional Radio
Neal Howard: Hello and welcome to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host Neal Howard, so glad that you could join us today. In studio today, we’re talking with Topher Wurts. He’s returning with us to speak a little bit about “Autism Village” and the “Autism Village App” that he’s developed that is soon to be launched. It is estimated that 1 in 42 boys will be born autistic and Topher as an autism dad is here to talk to us today about autism and how he is helping and how you can help as well. How are you doing today Topher?
Topher Wurts: Doing great. Thank you.
N: As an autism dad, you said in another segment when you were here before that you’re the father of a couple of boys. The younger of which has been diagnosed with autism. Could you talk a little bit about what autism is and what prompted you to seek a diagnosis? You did not just wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll go have my son tested for autism.” There were some things that led up to that.
T: Yeah, that’s right. Our son Kirby was diagnosed just under 2 years old. We have two boys very close together, 11 months apart and I was traveling a lot for my work at that time. And so we have a young lady from New Zealand staying with us, she was helping my wife with the boys. And she’d been a preschool teacher in New Zealand. She identified some behaviors that sadly that was consistent with behavior she’s teaching with some of the kids in her pre-school back home that were autistic. And so she brought it to our attention and we were able to reach out to the Easter Seals Organization and have Kirby evaluated and at that time the evaluator has informed us that he did appear to be presenting symptoms of autism.
N: Now many folks on are not so fortunate to have someone knowledgeable about early childhood development as you and your wife and family were. In your experience as an autism dad and someone who’s applying your knowledge to this disease to help others, have you noticed that there is maybe some resistance if someone say a teacher, comes to a parent and says “Hey I think maybe this might be going on with your child.” Is there a denial that takes place early on?
T: I think it’s a difficult diagnosis for any parent to work with and so in many cases including our own, the first reaction was “Really, Are you sure?” But I think it’s important to be open minded because the most difference, the most help you can give folks that are diagnosed on the spectrum is from whatever that early age is until when they’re in their mid 20’s when we all kind of become who we’re gonna be. And so it’s important I think to be open minded, I tell other parents who are in the very early days of diagnosis to be open minded about the diagnosis, that an over diagnosis isn’t something to be afraid of but an under diagnosis means you’re losing precious time. There are certain behaviors that are common and so are ones to look out for are children that aren’t making eye contact, children that aren’t pointing at things, children that have certain obsessions or compulsions to align things up by size, shape, or color these sort of things, so it’s not always consistent but usually there are some combination of sort of behaviors present which an experienced evaluator can identify as likely meaning that you may be dealing with some level of autism.
N: Are these symptoms of autism that your friend from New Zealand recognized, are these things generalized? I guess my question is how often in your experience have you seen a misdiagnosis to say someone is autistic, but they’ve been diagnose with ADHD or some other form of disorder?
T: Yeah. I guess I don’t have a lot of experience to give specifics statistics or empirical evidence on that but I think at the higher functioning end of the spectrum where kids are maybe just a little corky or a little less social. Then it’s more likely that they go undiagnosed because they’re gonna get by okay. And in many cases they have, they may have very specific skills academically that make them very successful in one area or another as well so not always but sometimes. And so as a result I think the higher functioning kids are less likely to get diagnosed and we certainly about a number of autistic adults who were never diagnosed or believed were autistic would never diagnose, as far as a misdiagnosis for ADB or ADHD, I don’t know how often that happens but it wouldn’t surprise me that it happens occasionally.
N: So basically what we’re saying is that there are, as you say, in the higher functioning spectrum of autistic people who become autistic adults – they’re conducting their daily lives, they’re working in healthcare, they’re driving cabs, they’re buying gas, they’re running businesses, they’re doing what we’d call the normal things in society. What should businesses, why should they care about autism? I mean if they’ve hired someone who maybe finds out that they’re autistic later in life but they’ve been doing a banged up job for the last five years, why should they care?
T: Well they shouldn’t probably. I mean the neat thing about it is that we’re starting see a number of employers come out and recognize that autistic adults make fabulous employees in certain roles, better than the average person. So in many cases, autism can and the high functioning … they certainly can be a benefit. On the other hand the reason that businesses need to be aware of this is that even for those folks that are higher functioning autistic adult they may have sensory issues that challenges them, and so putting them in a big help and open plan office with lots of noise and buzzing fluorescent lights or something could make it impossible for them to be successful whereas if you give them a quiet place to work with the incandescent lights, they might be the most amazing statistician there or something you have on your team. So realistically I think especially in retail businesses and places with a general public congregate, it’s important for the business owners, as well as the people that they’re facing off directly to understand a little bit about autism and the things that autistic people on autistic adults may be dealing with in the course of their daily lives.
N: Now that was on the professional end but when it comes to the consumer end, how can businesses be more in tune with the autistic who may not be on the higher functioning end of the spectrum?
N: Well I think that’s particularly acute sort of maybe for family that are moving around with autistic kids. And so as a very simple example sitting an autistic person in a restaurant, in a noisy area, in a booth where somebody right behind them and so forth – this is probably less likely to be successful in finding them a quiet table away from the noise. You know in the case of autistic adults there maybe issues with foods, certain kinds of food, food allergies or certain environmental things. Many autistic sort of high functioning and moderately functioning autistics describe auditory processing challenges where loud environments of multiple conversations – we could single out a conversation, you and I, in that sort of crowded room. To the autistic person, all of those conversations are coming in and at the same level along with you know a buzzing lamp and a fire truck going by and so on and so forth. So when businesses understand these things, they can adapt I believe. They can adapt their physical plan when a person who is working with somebody can identify that they maybe autistic and then adjust their approach to be more friendly towards the kind of interaction with somebody who has autism may need. Then as a result, those businesses are gonna get them more patronage from that population. It’s a tight group, they talk a lot certainly are the apps that we’re building will facilitate even more of that coming conversation. And this is the large group now, this is three million US families and growing at as you said 1 in 42 males births, 1 in 68 births overall. So this has been accelerating for the last 20 years, so this is a large force on the population that businesses, everything comes – museums or attractions, the restaurants, the retail establishments they’re gonna be serving them regularly so it’s important.
N: Now this app that you’ve developed, the “Autism Village App” when you’re talking about businesses changing the way that they do business not only for the handicapped by providing spaces out front – ramps and rails and what not. When you’re talking about something as massive as accommodating one autistic child that comes to a restaurant who needs to be seated in a certain way, how can your app help the families to find a place that has done the homework and has taken the care to accommodate people with autism?
T: So there are three ways that the Autism Village will help families for searching for autism friendly locations. The first is that they can view “ratings and reviews” by other autism families or autistic adults that explain in their own words what’s worked or what hasn’t worked at this location. And not every location will always be perfect, there maybe several restaurants saying it’s always gonna be loud but maybe they have the dietary thing because they have a lot of specialized selections for food allergies and so forth. So somebody that doesn’t have sensory issues can get there food things that there whereas if you’re a sensory person you might want to find a quieter restaurant. So you will be able to do that based on reviewing the ratings reviews of the population. The other two ways that we’re working on a very simple online training for businesses and client facing staff to help them understand autism and how they can adapt their approaches a little bit to be more friendly towards the autism population and we’ll display a small badge on the business profile if the business is going to do that or on a person’s profile if that person has gone thru that training. And finally around the country and around the world, there are consulting organizations that do much deeper training, consult with businesses about how to change operating procedures, how to change physical plan, how to really change their approach in a much more significant way to accommodate this population and we’ll support all those organization on the platform so that if a business has been trained, they’re going to their certification programs, you can see that on the business’s profile as well. So the ratings and reviews from the population, the basic online training that we offer and then deeper trainings and certifications that other organizations offer will be available on the platform and will help.
N: Now wrapping up, I’d like to ask you to let our listeners know where they can learn more about Autism Village. And where they can learn more about downloading the app when it becomes available in other places than just your website.
T: Yeah. So everything will be announced and the best way to stay in touch is right on our website. It’s autismvillage.com and then once the app is available, it will be available in both the iTunes store for iPhones and iPod and then the Google Play Store for android phones and android tabs.
N: Great. You’ve been listening to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host Neal Howard. it’s been an absolute pleasure to speak with Topher Wurst today, returning with us to talk more about Autism Village and the new app that’s been developed and will soon be available for download through the iPhone app store or through Google Play as well as at www.autismvillage.com. We’ve been here talking about the app and some of the challenges that people with autism face on a day to day basis and we’ve also been talking about how businesses can change the way that they do business in order to accommodate the autistic thereby performing a great service and having a bigger client or customer base as well. It’s been great having you here with us Topher.
T: Thank you very much.
N: Thank you. Transcript and audio of this program are available at healthprofessionalradio.com.au and also at hpr.fm. And you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.