How the Grand Rapids Children's Museum became one of Michigan's best spaces for kids with autism

The Grand Rapids Children's Museum has, for years, made sure that the space is a safe and friendly place for all children, including those who are on the autism spectrum. Thanks to its autism-friendly programming, the museum has now been named one of the best places in all of Michigan for children on the spectrum.

In a family-friendly city like Grand Rapids, there are a bevy of options for entertaining and engaging our children. From parks to gymnastics classes, public pools to library story times and everything in between, kids can find fun and learning at every corner of the community.


But what about those children who struggle to interact with their peers and find some activities overly challenging or stimulating? How can parents involve their children in the community while managing learning and social disorders? The Grand Rapids Children's Museum has developed a collection of new programs geared toward serving families touched by autism and recently received the Autism Seal of Approval by the Autism Alliance of Michigan for its efforts to create a safe and welcoming space for individuals on the autism spectrum.


According to Autism Speaks, a national autism advocacy society, "Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences." While you may have heard the term "on the spectrum," this phrasing can be a bit vague. Luckily, the nonprofit assists us with this language as well. "The term 'spectrum' reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism."


Because children affected by autism can exhibit symptoms in so many different ways, parents can sometimes struggle to involve their children in community activities. "It is very important that families have places to go that are inclusive and understanding," says Pam Liggett, Executive Director of Autism Support of Kent County, Inc. (ASK). "Children with autism can be unpredictable, so having educated and supportive staff can relax parents and allow them to have fun with their children."


Dedicating its efforts toward children in Kent County on the autism spectrum, ASK provides more than $50,000 in programs and services every year to improve the lives of individuals and families living with the disorder. Part of this effort is the group’s involvement with the Grand Rapids Children's Museum's (GRCM) twice-annual Connor's Friends event. Held every year in the spring and fall, Connor's Friends is a free evening event held especially for families affected by autism. For more than a decade, the program has provided children with autism a chance to play and explore in the museum while feeling relaxed and at ease, with the event being particularly mindful that many individuals with autism can have difficulty processing and integrating sensory information or stimuli, such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and movement. There can also be a hypersensitive response to touch.


"We dim the lights, we bring in special sensory pools [and] we usually have a music therapist," says Adrienne Brown, GRCM's director of communication and events. Designed to avoid sensory triggers for children on the spectrum and to allow families to meet and support one another, this event was named for museum board member Julie Wolf's grandchild, Connor Duke Sheppard, who was diagnosed with autism. Understanding that the museum, sometimes with hundreds of young kids running around and enjoying the various exhibits, can be overwhelming for some, the GRCM board and staff asked themselves, "What can we do to make it more comfortable?"


Adrienne BrownThe solution to create a private event for autism spectrum families quickly surfaced, and the GRCM held its first Connor's Friends event in 2006. In addition to dimming the lights and requiring pre-registration in order to cap the number of attendees, GRCM also creates visual barriers to eliminate distraction and designates quiet spaces, such as tents. All of these aspects are designed to allow children on the spectrum to enjoy all of the same exhibits that those without the disorder do on a daily basis—without the social anxiety and triggers that can often accompany crowds of children and parents.


"ASK partnered with GRCM to give families with children with autism an opportunity to visit the museum in a relaxing, sensory-sensitive, and welcoming way," says Liggett. "We have hosted Connor's Night with them for six to seven years. Connor's Friends gives kids with autism a chance to have the GRCM to themselves. Activities are modified, exits are blocked, and many volunteers are on hand to work with the kids," she adds.


For Marie Sly, mother of seven-year-old Ryan and ASK board member, the event was a unique opportunity to experience the museum without the pressure of the daily crowds. "It was awesome. It's such a good program," she says. The specialized environment of the evening also gave her other two children, ages three and four, a chance to interact with their older brother and enjoy the exhibits together. "It was a fun night. It was fun for our whole family," says Sly.


Socializing and support is also a vital part of Connor's Friends. "We've had a lot of the same families that do attend year after year," says Brown. Forming relationships with other parents of children with autism, they are able to swap tips and share resources. ASK and the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM), a statewide professional organization with a mission to make the “community safer and inclusive for families living with autism," according to AAoM President and CEO Colleen Allen, frequently attend Connor's Friends events. With these partnerships, GRCM brings in state experts to assist in recommendations for doctors, therapists or special programs. "A little bit of information goes a long way," says Allen.


The organizations also share information about local special events, such as Celebration Cinema's Sensory Showtimes, movie screenings designed to accommodate children with special needs, including autism. "If you know where to look, there are a lot of events in the community for our families," says Sly, who is also the director of the West Michigan Special Hockey Association. The nonprofit aims to make hockey accessible for all children and specializes in those with cognitive or developmental disabilities. Currently, 35 of the children on her team have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.


In addition to Connor's Friends nights, GRCM designs much of its environment to be a "more inviting place for those that are on the spectrum," says Brown. "We really do it every day." As the museum has grown and evolved over the past two decades, the board and staff have continually considered children on the autism spectrum when shaping programs and the museum’s physical space. As GRCM underwent renovations and new coats of paint, staff would avoid primary colors and overwhelming, busy patterns on walls that can often be triggers.


The museum also continually evolves its exhibits, incorporating sensory play on both floors and in most areas of the building. Exhibits that are particularly interesting and that can be soothing for those on the spectrum are the much-beloved bubbles, giant Lite Brite, and the textured wall tucked into the toddler area. Two times per week, the museum also hosts its Imagination Laboratory, daily art programs for all ages and abilities. Whether children in the lab are experimenting with water, dinosaur figurines or chickpeas, "it's always a sensory play activity," says Brown.


On top of all this, the museum has recently incorporated special sensory kits available for free for any child that could utilize sensory assistance during their experience of the exhibits. In each kit, GRCM includes noise reduction headphones, a weighted vest or suspenders, a story guide with information about each exhibit, emotion flashcards, and fidget bracelets.


These bags of goodies are available in three sizes and designed for children on the autism spectrum, but, of course, are for "any child that needs that extra support," says Brown. At no cost to check out, the kits are available at all times, and are somewhat akin to a Connor's Friends night in a bag.


All of the museum's efforts have recently been recognized by the Autism Alliance of Michigan, which aims "to lead collaborative efforts across the state that will improve the quality of life for individuals with autism through education, comprehensive services, community awareness, inclusion efforts, and coordinated advocacy," according to the group’s website.


On Jan. 30, GRCM received AAoM's second-ever Seal of Approval. "This award is given to businesses in Michigan who have demonstrated a conscious effort to accommodating and accepting individuals with autism," according to AAoM's website. The Grand Rapids museum is the first location in West Michigan, and the second in the entire state, to receive this designation. The Detroit Zoo received the organization's first Autism Seal in May 2016.


After the ceremony hosted at the GRCM, "over 30 staff members and volunteers from the GRCM attended a two-hour safety training presentation from AAoM’s Safety Specialist Scott Schuelke," according to AAoM. This training and receiving the seal capped off a process that was years in the making, beginning with GRCM's initial exploration of autism-friendly programming as the museum developed Connor's Friends.


"The reason the seal is important is because it's recognition for individuals and families that visit the museum…that there's some safety and some basic acceptance/awareness training that has happened there," says Allen. All of this dedication is designed "to make sure we're being as welcoming and as inclusive as we can, and as supportive as we can be for all of those families," says Brown.


Though designing programs for children may seem like child's play, each kid, whether on the autism spectrum or not, experiences the world differently. This makes developing spaces and activities for children complex and challenging. At GRCM, staff and volunteers are doing their best on a daily basis to ensure that the museum is accessible to all, every day, and that, on a few nights of the year, those with autism can feel that the space is designed especially for them.


For parents like Marie Sly, this special attention can make all the difference. "Any time that there are opportunities for our community to get out and have the same opportunities that other kids have, it's always a positive thing," she says. Because "the [autism] spectrum is so broad, every child is different," adds Sly.


Due to this diversity and sometimes unpredictability of children on the autism spectrum, accessibility and understanding is vital. After seven years of raising a child with autism, Sly has learned that each individual with this diagnosis is unique. "When you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism," she says. "It just takes you getting to know the individual and what their triggers are."


At GRCM, staff and volunteers continually train and practice these skills, working to make their space accessible to all.


This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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