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Hands On! Sensory Night lets kids with autism learn, play safely

Nathan Baker • Jan 21, 2017 at 9:51 PM

An event Monday at Hands On! Regional Museum will cater to the special needs of children with autism spectrum disorders and create for them a safe learning and playing environment.

The museum’s quarterly Sensory Night is designed for children with sensory integration needs and their immediate families.

Individuals with autism many times have difficulty processing information from their own senses, which can be over- or under-sensitive at times. The processing trouble can lead to sensory overload, causing stress, anxiety and physical pain.

During the two-hour event, the downtown Johnson City learn and play museum is closed to everyone but the families who pre-registered. Inside, the lights are dimmed, the music is cut and loud exhibits, like the museum’s Tesla coil, are shut down.

Hands On! Executive Director Andy Marquart said Sensory Night began in 2014, following the lead of other museums and businesses.

“A lot of times, children on the spectrum, they’re very sensitive to sounds and light, among other things, and in our museum there are usually a lot of sounds and lights happening all at once,” he said. “For this night, we sort of change the experience, so those children can walk through the museum and be more comfortable.”

A special empty room in the building is designated as a quiet room where, if children become uncomfortable with the sights and other visitors, families can take a break and help their children calm down.

Hands On! staff consulted with the ARC of Washington County, local occupational therapists, parents and area college programs to better understand the needs of the children they hoped to serve before starting the program three years ago.

Marquart said parents with autistic children who have visited the museum both during regular hours and during the special event have told him the difference is night and day.

“When they bring their children here when we’re open to the public, one of their children can have problems in the museum, and they said they usually can only spend about 15 minutes here before they have to leave,” he said. “With Sensory Night, some of them can spend almost the whole two hours we’re open here. They’ve said it’s completely different from what they’re normally used to while they’re here.”

Ellie Light, the mother of Annie, a 6-year-old with autism, said she and her family frequent Sensory Night, because it’s a friendly affair where the other patrons are more understanding.

“It’s nice to be able to take the kid and relax,” she said. “Most of the time when we go out, it’s stressful, and we have to keep her from running into certain areas and getting too loud. At the museum, we don’t have to worry about making her fit into any certain environment, and we can let her be a kid, when most of the times we can’t.”

Over the last three years, some of the same families often return to the special events, Light said, which has created a more friendly and trusting environment.

If she were to take Annie to the museum during its public hours, Light said she would never allow her child to use the museum’s two-story slide, because she would be out of sight momentarily.

“I would never do that around regular people, because she would be out of my control for a minute,” Light said. “But at Sensory Night, everybody tends to know each other and know each other’s situation, so I can let her do everything she wants.”

Sensory Night will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 23. Marquart said registration is required and limited to 50 to 75 families, because too many people could cause discomforts for some children. To register, call 423-434-4263.

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