No ordinary activities; should autistic children pay lower fees?

Little League baseball, May 2010 - 12

Image by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

I came across a post asking whether families with autistic children really should be entitled to pay less for “ordinary activities”. Here “ordinary activities” refers to activities like sports groups or zoo visits; ones that aren’t specifically tailored to autistic children (compared to therapy sessions or special needs groups). The purported justification behind letting families with autistic children pay less for attending these ordinary activities, is financial hardship, since it is financially taxing to raise a special needs child. If that is the justification for lower (or no) fees, then the suggestion is that is unfair; many people struggle with finances, and some families with autistic children do not struggle with finances, so why should they be given a fee-break on the back of having an autistic child?

I was surprised to see the discussion presented in this light. It is not how I have ever thought of why autistic children should be able to attend ordinary activities for lower fees. Though realising other people see the question in this way, helps me to better understand the rather snooty and judgmental responses I have sometimes received when asking event or activity organisers whether they provided cheaper fees for special needs families: If they thought I was simply after a cheap ride, I can better understand why they thought I had a cheek to even enquire. I’ve even had some places say they didn’t want to sign forms that would have made a government organisation pay me back for the fees I gave them.

Here’s how I’ve always thought about why families like mine should get cheaper access: Having an autistic child makes it hard to get out of the car at the destination, get in the door where the activity is being held, and remain there for the full length of the activity. And that’s if the child is even willing or able to take part in the activity. There are so many sensory, communication and general behavioural challenges with these children, that paying the full amount to attend and attempt these activities, does not appear to be fair and equal. The child is unlikely to get the enjoyment, benefit and learning that is comparatively highly likely for “ordinary” children. There is not equal value, so why pay equal amounts?

The predictable reply here is that some other children will also not enjoy or participate in the event, but are expected to pay full price. But the category of autistic children as a whole, makes it far less likely, and it seems fair to me that the organisation acknowledge and respond to that very real and appreciable difference. There is something especially relevant here about autistic children, rather than just special needs children: Our kids specifically do not respond well to change. They crave routine and predictability. So trying something new – no matter what that new thing may be – is a challenge in itself.

There isn’t really an “ordinary” activity for our children. They are all challenging because our children are challenging; you can’t just switch off the autism, or find activities where autism is totally irrelevant. Even when autistic children are passionate about taking part in an activity, they need help to move-on when it’s finished, or not to just end up loudly stimming their happiness to the degree that the other children can’t take part too.

What about the extra supervision that our children often need at such activities; maybe we should be paying more, not less (I have seen this argued). But how often do our families just dump our children at ordinary activities? We are far more likely to be the unpaid parent helpers who stay to help our children understand and take part in the event. In fact, in my experience, us parents turn into helpers for the rest of the children too – the ones who don’t have special needs but need help tying a shoe-lace or can’t get a move quite right, and end up asking the closest adult. For a far-too-long time I was the reliable unpaid parent-help at my son’s mainstream kindergarten; I turned up and stayed to help my son, but I ended up dealing with all the other children – changing their outfits for dress-up, helping build that block castle, even breaking up fights and soothing an injured child.

I will always respect the right of the activity providers to charge whatever they like; I’m not arguing for compulsory cheap fees, or that providers charging full price are immoral or ignorant. I would like to think though that if they understood all these special challenges – and that our children might end up excelling at and loving their activities given the chance – they would consider lower fees. It’s often government bodies providing subsidised prices anyway, through various bodies and funding, so no point beating up the service providers. Putting that aside, the principal aim of this post was an effort to explain what I see as legitimate reasons for lower fees. (And I haven’t even addressed the good financial sense it makes to offer lower fees to families who otherwise wouldn’t consider attending at all.)

Clearly in this post I have been talking from personal experiences with my son. I haven’t previously sought the opinions of families who have autistic children about how they feel about paying full fees for ordinary activities (which is clear when you consider my surprise that people would think it’s only a question of the family’s income). So now that I’ve shared my own views, and why I have them, I would be very interested in hearing yours too.

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4 Responses to No ordinary activities; should autistic children pay lower fees?

  1. Melissa says:

    The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever been given the option of paying a lower fee. Whether for a gym class (and believe me, we’ve left early AND I’ve been there with her) or any other activity we’ve done. The exception to this is mainly when things are done through my daughter’s school they are either cheaper or free. I think it’s mainly because I didn’t know that it was an option that I didn’t pursue the discount.

    Do I think there should be a discount? Well… while it would be nice… I actually don’t mind paying for things that are more catered to her needs, rather than things that I am more likely to have to take her away from because of one thing or another. So special needs family fun day, or special needs open play at one of the places that cater to these things… Or things like that would be more up our alley. We’re going to try going to one of the (SMALL) amusement parks near us and one thing we ARE going to do is get a letter stating her diagnosis for lines.

    • The range of discounts I’m familiar with here, are: The place offering them directly; paying for access using special funding from the government; and special tickets made available to and through the local autism charity. There are no doubt other ways cheaper fees are offered too that I haven’t come across.

      We also strongly tend towards special needs / autism oriented activities, rather than ordinary activities. Though I’d definitely be more inclined to give the ordinary activities a go if they offered reduced prices, and particularly if we didn’t have to jump through ridiculous hoops to access those prices. I find one of the major things in the way of getting the cheaper fees where they do exist, is “proving” the disability – since autism doesn’t leave him in a wheelchair or have any facial or other bodily signs, it makes it difficult, and I feel rather awkward when trying to prove that my son is “intellectually disabled”.

  2. Bill says:

    I am endowed with Asperger’s.

    I generally disdain discounts for ANY group; I tolerate it from vendors who feel it is in their best interests. For instance, if a cheap “Happy Meal” gets an adult paying full fare in the door, who otherwise might have stayed home, then it is in the vendor’s interest, and they have a right to do it, and I don’t think his costs end up burdening other patrons if he sells the “Happy Meal” at his cost.
    I am particularly irritated by senior discounts. Even though I meet some vendor definitions of a “senior”, I never ask for them, and never intend to ask for them. Why should part of the cost of my meal or my ticket be born by other patrons, especially working families with a bunch of kids and a mortgage? It is pretty obvious older Americans have more disposable income; go to any decent sit-down full-service restaurant at lunchtime, and you will see it full of a combination of businessmen and retired couples. What you don’t see is young families.

    • Hi Bill.

      Discounts make good financial sense in a large number of situations: Make children’s entry cheap or free because otherwise their parents won’t attend an event at all. Or provide a student discount because students are the a significant group who would be interested in attending an event, but (being students) are likely to be rather poor since they’re studying rather than working. Or provide bulk discounts for large groups because it encourages people to pre-book / bring their friends. Etc. The same financial argument can apply to providing cheaper fees for special needs families – because that’s revenue the company otherwise wouldn’t get at all. It’s not always a matter of “X pays less so Y pays more”, sometimes it’s simply “X pays less but still covers costs, there’s just less profit take involved”. It’s going to vary from business to business, and will vary with whether it is a profit or not-for-profit organisation.

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