If you spot a 'sensory room' at a sports stadium, you likely have this couple to thank.

When Julian Maha and Michele Kong's first child was diagnosed with autism, their world turned upside down.

Maha and Kong's son Abram was an easy, delightful, precocious baby at first. Around age 2, his behavior suddenly changed. He stopped talking. He stopped sleeping. He cried inconsolably half the night.

Though they are both physicians themselves, his parents were at a loss. They consulted several doctors, finally landing an appointment with one of the top speech delay specialists in the country.


After a short examination, the doctor abruptly delivered the daunting news: Abram has autism. He would probably never speak, never say, "I love you." And the doctor's opinion was that there was a good chance Maha and Kong would end up institutionalizing him because he was only going to get worse.

Maha and Kong were stunned.

"It was as if someone had dropped a bomb in our lives, and we were just standing there holding the pieces," Maha said in a TED Talk. Abram's diagnosis changed everything — including what would become the couple's life calling.

Maha and Kong quickly learned that families affected by autism often feel isolated and excluded from society.

The couple found themselves thrust into a whole new world, and soon discovered that many parents of kids with autism find themselves with little social support.

Some people with an autism spectrum disorder are nonverbal completely or just at times, which can make communication difficult. The vocalizations that sometimes come with autism can be unnerving to people without autism who are unfamiliar with them. Too many noises, lights, people, or other stimuli can push people with autism into sensory overload, which can lead to meltdowns.

And then there are the assumptions. Because they communicate differently, people with autism are often perceived to be unintelligent or unfeeling.

Abram and his brother Juda. Photo via Julian Maha.

However, Maha and Kong realized that many of society's perceptions of autism are simply wrong. People with autism are often highly intelligent and experience a full range of emotions. Many absolutely can and do feel and understand — it's just that sometimes, they just can't show it in ways that most of us without autism understand.

Maha and Kong believe that many of these prejudices can be dissolved through awareness, acceptance, and inclusion. So they set out on a major mission.

They founded KultureCity, an all-volunteer nonprofit that advocates for acceptance and inclusion of people with autism — and helps make it happen.

Based out of Birmingham, Alabama, where Maha and Kong live, KultureCity seeks to transform our society to be accepting and inclusive of neurodiversity.

"Everyone's aware of autism now," says Maha. "I think it's the next step of acceptance and inclusion that's really going to start making changes for so many kids."

Noise-cancelling headphones can help a child with autism in sensory overload. Photo via Julian Maha.

KultureCity works toward that goal by training people in guest service positions on how to interact with guests with sensory processing differences. They also help make spaces more inclusive through minor adjustments and accommodations. The training is the most important thing, though, Maha says. When non-autistic people know what to expect and have tools for interacting with someone who may hit sensory overload, everyone's experience is more positive.

KultureCity has helped create sensory-inclusive spaces at more than half of NBA stadiums, in addition to other venues.

The organization works with zoos, aquariums, professional sports venues, and other public spaces around the country to help them be more sensory-inclusive.

Maha points out that there's a difference between a sensory-friendly space or event and a sensory-inclusive one. A sensory-friendly space provides lower noise levels and crowds, but such accommodations might hinder the experiences of others. A sensory-inclusive space provides accommodations that have little to no impact on anyone else, but make a big difference for people prone to sensory overload.

Such an accommodation might be a room where people can escape the crowds and noise in a sports stadium, for example. Or it could be a grab bag filled with things like noise-cancelling headphones, stimming tools, and weighted lap pads (which can help people feel grounded).

Calm lighting, minimal decor, and various grounding activities give people a respite from sensory overload. Photo via Julian Maha.

But that really only scratches the surface of what KultureCity is doing. Most recently, they've created a free app that provides various resources for people with sensory processing differences and parents of kids with autism.

It can be a challenging diagnosis, but Maha wants people to know that people with autism are no different from your children or loved ones who don't have it.

"They view the world differently and they take in the world differently from us, but their wants and needs are still similar," Maha notes. "They still seek acceptance and inclusion, they want to be part of the community, and it's our mission to help embrace them regardless of their differences."

Family
Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

There's a difference between dieting and being healthy, and often times, overattention to what you consume can lead to disordered eating. Eating disorders are dangerous and can affect anyone, but they're especially concerning in adolescents. Which is why WW (formerly Weight Watchers) is facing intense criticism for its new app, Kurbo, targeted toward kids ages eight to 17.

The app uses a traffic light system to tell kids which foods are a "green light" and can be eaten as much as they want, which foods are a "yellow light" and should be consumed with caution, and which "red light" foods they should probably avoid.

It seems like a simple system to teach kids what's good for them and what's not, but it regulates kids' diets in an unhealthy way. Gaining weight is a normal, healthy part of child development. Putting on a few pounds means your body is doing what it's supposed to do. While the app classifies foods with too much fat or calories as "red," children need to consume some of these foods to develop their brain.

WW is calling the app "common sense." As Gary Foster, the chief science officer of WW, puts it, items in the red foods category "aren't foods that should be encouraged in kids' diets, but they also shouldn't be vilified or demonized, and there has to be a system that's simple and science-based that highlights that so everyone in the family can understand."

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Well Being
via Ostdrossel / Instagram

Lisa is a lifelong bird enthusiast who goes by the name Ostdrossel on social media. A few years ago, the Germany native moved to Michigan and was fascinated by the new birds she encountered.

Upon arriving in the winter, she fell in love with the goldfinches, cardinals, and Blue Jays. Then in the spring, she was taken by the hummingbirds.

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via Stratford Festival / Twitter

Service dogs are invaluable to their owners because they are able to help in so many different ways.

They're trained to retrieve dropped Items, open and close doors, help their owners remove their clothes, transport medications, navigate busy areas such as airports, provide visual assistance, and even give psychological help.

The service dog trainers at K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs in Canada want those who require service dogs to live the fullest life possible, so they're training dogs on how to attend a theatrical performance.

The adorable photos of the dogs made their way to social media where they quickly went viral.

On August 15, a dozen dogs from Golden Retrievers to poodles, were treated to a performance of "Billy Elliott" at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. This was a special "relaxed performance" featuring quieter sound effects and lighting, designed for those with sensory issues.

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"It's important to prepare the dogs for any activity the handler may like to attend," Laura Mackenzie, owner and head trainer at K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs, told CBC.

"The theater gives us the opportunity to expose the dogs to different stimuli such as lights, loud noises, and movement of varying degrees," she continued. "The dogs must remain relaxed in tight quarters for an extended period of time."

The dogs got to enjoy the show from their own seats and took a break with everyone else during intermission. They were able to familiarize themselves with the theater experience so they know how to navigate through crowds and fit into tight bathroom stalls.

via Stratford Festival / Twitter


via Stratford Festival / Twitter


via Stratford Festival / Twitter

"About a dozen dogs came to our relaxed performance, and they were all extremely well-behaved," says Stratford Festival spokesperson Ann Swerdfager. "I was in the lobby when they came in, then they took their seats, then got out of their seats at intermission and went back — all of the things we learn as humans when we start going to the theater."

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The dogs' great performance at the trial run means that people who require service animals can have the freedom to enjoy special experiences like going to the theater.

"It's wonderful that going to the theater is considered one of the things that you want to train a service dog for, rather than thinking that theater is out of reach for people who require a service animal, because it isn't," Swerdfager said.

The Stratford Festival runs through Nov. 10 and features productions of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Neverending Story," "Othello," "Billy Elliot," "Little Shop of Horrors," "The Crucible" and more.

Inclusivity