Although autism spectrum disorders affect each child differently, many children have trouble with sensory overload in unfamiliar or crowded situations. That’s where Wonderscope Children’s Museum of Kansas City is stepping in to help.
By BETH LIPOFF
Special to The Star
The museum will host a sensory-friendly event from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, a first for the museum.
The bulk of the Wonderscope exhibits will remain the same as they are most of the time, but staff members are making a few adjustments to make the evening a comfortable experience for children on the autism spectrum.
Changes include turning off the sound for some exhibits, limiting the number of people allowed in each exhibit at one time and providing safe spaces for children who feel overwhelmed to sit out and calm down.
Because Wonderscope is housed in an old elementary school, and each exhibit is set up in a different classroom, it’s easier for them to limit access to different exhibits to prevent overcrowding in a few. Volunteers will keep track of how many people are in each room at a time.
The exhibits are geared toward children 8 years old and younger, although older siblings can have fun there too.
Katherine Patterson-Paronto, CEO of Wonderscope, got the idea from the Children’s Museum of Houston, which has been holding similar events for a while. This will be the first time for Wonderscope.
One of the employees at Wonderscope has an autistic child, Patterson-Paronto said, and she led the charge to embrace the idea of sensory-friendly programming.
“We’re all about having a lot of access for everybody. We feel like our exhibits do really well for all types of kids, and it just seemed like a natural fit for us,” Patterson-Paronto said. “We know when we’re busy, and there are a lot of children, and it’s loud, it can be difficult for a child with sensory sensitivities.”
Wonderscope staffers got in touch with the Houston museum for advice on how to begin, then contacted local groups who work with families affected by autism. The KU Center for Child Health and Development and the Autism Society of the Heartland are partnering with them to produce this event. A third group, Autism Speaks, also was involved.
Kris Ray is a former board member of the Autism Society of the Heartland and knows firsthand the difficulties of taking her 6-year-old autistic daughter to a setting like a crowded children’s museum.
“Getting them out to a place like Wonderscope … usually results in meltdowns,” said Ray, who helped coordinate the society’s participation in the event. “We try to find ways to include our families and give them social opportunities to experience and learn just like any other kid, in a way that’s not threatening.”
Ray said sometimes parents feel uncomfortable bringing their autistic children to public events because of the potential for the child to become overwhelmed and cause a scene.
“Parents don’t want other parents to stare at them” and judge them, Ray said.
She said she’s really enjoyed partnering with the other autism-advocacy groups to make the Wonderscope event a reality and hopes they’re able to make this a regular event.
To come up with the ideas to modify the Wonderscope experience, Ray brought in occupational and speech therapists who have worked with her daughter and organized a focus group of parents and kids to walk through the museum and give feedback on potential problems and tell them what worked already.
They found some closets in the rooms that, when the shelves were removed, could serve as safe spaces away from the activity for parents and kids to take a breather and calm down with beanbag chairs and weighted blankets.
Ray said Phyllis Young of the KU Center for Child Health and Development is making passport books that give children something to look for in each room to help guide the experience. Volunteers also will hand out fliers that show pictures of what is in each room.
Programs like this are just what families want, Ray said.
“Parents are very interested and are just clamoring for (events) for their kids,” Ray said.