Sensory awareness programming offered throughout the community

While attending live events at libraries, museums and other public places make for a fun-filled day for some, for those with sensory sensitivity, these outings can be overwhelming. When it comes to sensory awareness, the local community continues to improve and adjust its inclusive programming at museums and libraries to provide a safe place for all. 

According to Smithsonian Mag, there’s been an increase in sensory-friendly times and days at museums, as not everyone is able to self-regulate and can feel stress from the noises, lights and social and language expectations in these settings. The five senses are especially relevant in children’s museums, which can cause overload for attendees with sensory sensitivity. It’s becoming more common for places like movie theaters and stadiums to dim the lights, tone down or cut off the loud noises, making for a more enjoyable, inclusive event. 

Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM) Director of Marketing and Customer Service Christie Bender says GRPM has had accessibility as a goal throughout its history. “The Museum began as a cabinet of curiosities with a group of high school students led by John Ball,” she says. “When the Museum opened its facility on 54 Jefferson in the 1940s, the accessible design was touted nationwide as the ‘Grand Rapids Model’ for being as friendly as your next door neighbor and accessible as a dime store — because of its street level design that looked more like a department store at the time than a museum.”

Bender says that GRPM continues to move forward with meeting needs and strives to be a place with exhibitions, educational and community programming, with universal accessibility at the forefront. 

On Thursday, April 28, 2022, GRPM, in partnership with Hope Network, will host a sensory-friendly evening to follow the annual Bridge Walk for Autism Awareness. For an upcoming exhibit, Fashion + Nature, opening in April, Bender says it was important to work with surrounding professionals to ensure inclusivity. “This exhibit went through a rigorous design process with community experts including Grand Valley State University Occupational Therapist Program, the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired of Michigan. Anishinaabe Circle and more community partners to increase inclusivity and community voice,” she says. GRPM also hosts Camp Curious summer camps including “Tales of the Archives” designed for neurodiverse teens, ages 16-24. 

GRPM isn’t the only one offering this kind of programming. There’s been an increase in local events available for the broad spectrum of community members including Grand Rapids Griffins games, movie theater showings and Kent District Library sensory storytimes. John Ball Zoo and Blanford Nature Center even have headphone zones and quiet areas. 

Shelley Roossien, accessibility and inclusion specialist at Kent District Library (KDL), says the library has a brand-new program that focuses on sensory awareness. Sensory Storytime was an idea she brought to the Library. “Our storytime programs are amazing but we do recognize that there are barriers, especially [for] children with autism or sensory processing disorders," she says. "Those storytimes can be very overwhelming or it might not fit into their routine to come into the Library, but we recognize storytime is a very essential part of literacy.”

The Sensory Storytime is more accessible and can accommodate different schedules and comfortability levels, being a virtual platform, Roossien says. This can help parents or caregivers be in control of the lights and noises at home, versus in a public library setting. 

“We have a great group of youth librarians in our system. They recorded a lot of videos, edited [them], created some resource pages and [the program] launched officially January 31 [2022], on our website,” Roossien says. 
KDL is on pause with in-branch programming but these pre-recorded episodes are available for free to anyone on their website. Librarians use flannel boards, visual effects, movements, sounds, props, etc. to engage children.
The website also features a recommended reading list and a resource guide for parents/caregivers, detailing sensory processing disorder (SPD). This neurological condition impacts the brain’s ability to properly receive information from the body’s five senses, causing interference. Hypersensitivity SPD can make a person feel overwhelmed and overstimulated from bright lights or irritating fabrics. Hyposensitivity SPD can make a person seek out stimulation, through rough play or contact pressure.
“When we touch, smell, see or taste things, our brain processes that and we react to those senses. With sensory processing disorder, that doesn’t happen — or it doesn’t happen in what we would say [is] normal behavior,” Roossien says. 
Since Sensory Storytime has launched, the Library has received positive feedback from the program. “I know the people who do know about it are having a really positive experience with it. We’re just hoping this program gets used and that it grows. Every quarter, we’re going to be putting out new content and new videos. It’s not going to be the same thing over and over, Roossien says. "We’ll leave those old video links up too, because sometimes kids like that repetition. They want to watch their favorite librarian over and over and that is totally fine. That’s why we did it the way we did.”
Repetition and routines are especially important to those with sensory processing disorders, Roossien said. The story times are available in full 15-30 minute episodes or shorter 1-5 minute segments. 
Jenny Savage-Dura, branch youth librarian at KDL East Grand Rapids Branch, is one of about librarians from 20 branches who recorded Storytime episodes. She describes the work as critical to the mission of the Library. “It makes our work in early literacy accessible to more children and families in our community,” she says. 
“We know that as many as one in six children may experience differences in sensory processing throughout their development,” Savage-Dura says. “We hope this website and recorded videos support early literacy development in those children through storytelling and singing and we hope these families feel seen and supported by their local Library.”
The Library hopes the program is useful to community members and that it can grow in the years to come. Roossien hopes to have talks with local schools special education programs throughout Kent ISD for possible partnerships in the future.
“If I am allowing one child to experience Storytime in a way that they didn’t feel they could before, then my goal has been met,” Roossien says. 

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
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