The arches of the Pacific Science Center glow red in 2007. (Photo: Andrew Siguenza/flickr)
Step into your average children's museum on a weekend afternoon and you'll find mobs of kids and their families learning about everything from the cardiovascular system to the gravitational pull of the planets. Most museums feature interactive exhibits that allow kids to push buttons and play games while they're learning. It's loud, chaotic and fun for some — but not for all. For children with autism, the lights, noise and crowds of a children's museum can scare them away. That's why one children's museum, the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, is changing the environment for one day each month, cutting back the crowds and toning down the noise and lights for kids with autism.
On the second Saturday of each month, the Pacific Science Center opens its doors two hours early — before the center opens to the general public — just for children with autism and their families. According to the center's website, museum staff turn down the lights and soften the noise and light stimulation levels for interactive exhibits when possible. The center has staff who are specially trained in "inclusive communication" and making accommodations for people with autism. The center also offers a special sensory guide for visitors that includes maps of exhibit spaces rated for noise level, visual stimulation, and even the availability of touch and feel activities or the presence of strong odors.
The Pacific Science Center's Exploration for All program is one of a similar line of autism programs for children that can found from the Dallas Museum of Art to the Guggenheim.
What does all of this mean for children with autism? It means the opportunity to explore and learn without the hustle and bustle of a typical weekend crowd. It means exhibits that guide and teach without overstimulating. And it means inclusion in a world that otherwise feels confusing and confining. And for everything it means to the children, it means that and so much more to their families. For parents of children with autism, a program like the one at the Pacific Science Center means watching their children take on "normal" activities that might otherwise feel overwhelming. It means the opportunity to break out of a demanding daily routine. Most importantly, it means a chance to have fun with their children without fear of condemnation or judgment.
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