When the Jackson R. Lehman Family YMCA opened in June, it included something unique: a sensory room.
For people with autism or other sensory-sensitivities, the room contains several features that are soothing visually, audibly and tactility. There is a ball pit that provides comfort like a weighted blanket and above the pit is a light projection of a spinning wheel that can move faster or slower depending on the preference.
Two fiber-optic light fixtures hang down like waterfalls. Visitors to the room can touch and braid the fiber optic strands, or they can sit in the middle of one of these waterfalls on a vibrating pad. Other items in the room include a stargazer light and a stage that changes color according to music or voices. Behind the stage are two tubes, one with swirling water and one with a whirlpool of foam balls. Every stimulus in the room can be determined by the occupant, from the color of the lights to the sounds and more. It is designed to be interactive.
The room is available for any visitor to use and the only other sensory room of this kind in a YMCA is in London, says Kyle Brunn, youth and sports director of the Lehman YMCA.
“The YMCA identified that some people within the community were being overlooked and the room was created to fill a need,” he says. “There are very few places in the nation like this. But in our continued promise to make the community a better place, we want all individuals to be welcome.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 births result in autism, a developmental disability that encompasses a broad range of conditions but tends to be characterized by social interaction difficulties, communication challenges and repetitive behaviors. That is more than twice the rate from 15 years ago and a conservative estimate, judging from at least one other federal study. Better diagnosis likely is a reason for the increase, but some experts believe the occurrence has also risen, making autism what some say is our nation's fastest-growing developmental disorder.
Awareness of this complex condition is growing, as is the number of recreational and cultural institutions welcoming children on the spectrum and their families.
When the Philadelphia-area Legoland, one of several around the country, opened this spring, facility officials promised autism-friendly programming. For its first event July 28, Legoland partnered with the Ruttenberg Autism Center to prepare, including training Legoland staff about the ways people with Autism Spectrum disorder may perceive things differently than they do.
“It's a different way of looking at the world through their eyes,” said Ruttenberg director Eric R. Mitchell, a psychologist who is also the parent of a teenager on the spectrum.
Every person with autism is unique, Mitchell told the Legoland staff, but many of them can be sensitive to noise, bright lights, and touch. They may avoid eye contact and not appear to be listening. Some people with autism spectrum disorder may engage in behaviors or mannerisms that may seem odd to others but actually serve as a coping mechanism, he said.
Speak in a calm voice, especially if the child with autism becomes agitated or upset, he suggested. And if a guest is playing, offer to join in.
“The bottom line is these kids want to have fun,” Mitchell said.
Locally, the AWS Foundation provides grants and works with businesses throughout northeast Indiana to offer community assistance for individuals with a wide variety of disabilities, including those with autism or other sensory-sensitive conditions.
Patti Hays, the CEO of the AWS Foundation, says her organization's focus is to ask, “How do we make everything accessible to everyone? How can we make accommodations so everyone can experience all Fort Wayne has to offer?”
With the support of the AWS Foundation, several businesses provide sensory-friendly days. On the afternoon of Nov. 4, Civic Theatre will host a sensory-friendly presentation of “Irving Berlin's White Christmas,” a musical it opens to the general public that evening.
As part of “Project Lights Up,” Civic Theatre has staged similar performances for the past three years, the most recent being “Beauty and the Beast.”
Hays says the shows are reformatted to limit triggering stimulus, such as sudden noises or harsh lights. Arts United Center opens early so families have the opportunity to walk around and become familiar with the setting. The number of attendants is limited, providing a smaller atmosphere. And at any time, the families can retreat to the lobby where there will be service dogs for comfort and televisions broadcasting the show so no one has to miss a moment.
Tickets are free for families with members that are sensory sensitive. Use the code “AWS” when calling the box office at 424-5220.
Science Central has sensory-friendly days in association with the AWS Foundation. Science Central has hosted events for the past four years, the next is Dec. 13.
Some national chains have special programs as well. On the first Sunday of every month, Chuck E Cheese opens two hours early for people with sensory sensitvities. The national movie chain Regal Cinemas, which operates the theater at Coldwater Crossing, presents a sensory-friendly movie showing at the price of $6.50 through its My Way Matinee program.
All these businesses have trained staff during those days and the number of people admitted is limited. Noise levels are reduced and the lights are adjusted to provide a safe environment for individuals with a range of sensory sensitivities.
“After going through sensory-friendly events, many can return on regular days feeling familiar with their surroundings,” Hays says.
Rita Giordano of the Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this story.