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'Sensory-Friendly Sunday' lets kids with sensory processing issues enjoy Strong Museum on own terms

Feb 1, 2019

Oliver Webb plays in a sandbox at The Strong Museum.
Credit Caitlin Whyte / WXXI News

For kids with autism or other sensory processing disorders, going to loud, crowded places like the Strong Museum can be overwhelming. That’s why the museum started Sensory-Friendly Sundays, making accommodations so all children can enjoy a comfortable visit.

Sensory-Friendly Sunday was a one-off event in 2018. But Noelle McElrath-Hart, spokesperson for The Strong, said they had so much positive feedback, they’re planning a couple this year.

“You know, there’s a lot of families who love coming to the museum, but for some of them it can be a little intimidating if they have special needs," she said. "So we’re really excited to offer this in an ongoing goal of inclusivity in the museum.”

On these specific Sundays, the museum opens a few hours early and caps ticket sales at 250 people. The lights are lower, the games and exhibits are quieter, and all of the families here have kids with sensory issues.

Jenny Emerson is here with her two children, Mason and Laura Jane. Mason has autism and sensory processing disorder, and it’s the family’s first time at the Strong Museum. They’re camped out by a big train ride as the kids play with toy trains nearby.

“We can’t usually go do things," Emerson said. "Places get too busy and too overwhelming for him, so this is perfect because it’s quiet.”

Over in an interactive theater exhibit, Amber Caldarelli is holding a cup of fake popcorn while her 7-year-old daughter, Aisling, preps for her debut behind the velvet curtain. She says Aisling doesn’t do well in crowds and tends to run off when overwhelmed, so these days work best for her.

Laura Jane and Mason Emerson play with trains at the Strong Museum.
Credit Caitlin Whyte / WXXI News

“She was so excited to come out today," Caldarelli  said. "We don’t generally come out a lot because there’s not a whole  lot of acceptance yet.”

Some families are even coming as far as Syracuse for these special events.

Under a pirate ship exhibit is a sandbox, but instead of sand, there are little plastic beads. It’s kind of tucked away from the rest of the museum, and this is where Rachel Webb and her son Oliver spend their days whenever they come to a Sensory-Friendly Sunday. This is their third trip from Syracuse for one.

Oliver is 3 years old and has sensory issues. He also doesn’t do well in crowds, his mom said.

“I get nervous when we go to regular places or typical places because it’s a hit or a miss with him, Webb said. "He could be fine, or he could totally be overwhelmed and burst into tears and then the entire day is ruined.”

Webb said not only is this a good environment for Oliver, it’s also good for her as a parent.

“Like he pitched a fit earlier because he didn’t want to wear his shoes. He hates wearing shoes. And we took them off to go on this like jungle gym thing and he didn’t want to put them back on," Webb said.

She said she looked around and realized that nobody was staring -- or judging.

"It just made me better able to handle it and to not be worried about fixing it quickly," she said. "Like just letting him have his time, have his emotion and just kind of go through it.” 

Aisling Caldarelli plays at the Strong Museum
Credit Caitlin Whyte / WXXI News

The next Sensory-Friendly Sunday will be on April 7, but if you want to get there sooner, The Strong provides amenities like noise canceling headphones and quiet rooms during all open hours.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.