Parents of children with autism know all too well the struggle that can come with going out in public – let alone finding a place to relax and have fun. In Michigan, however, children on the autism spectrum can rest assured that they are always welcome to have a safe and fun experience at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.
The Autism Alliance of Michigan gave its official Seal of Approval to the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, which is only the second institution in the entire state to earn the distinction. The Autism Alliance presented the Seal of Approval to the GRCM “for their work toward creating a safe and welcoming venue for autism families” after the museum underwent extensive staff training and facility upgrades recently.
“The GRCM has always believed that play is for everyone and everyone should play,” Adrienne Brown-Reasner, Director of Communication & Events, told The Autism Site. She added that the staff at the museum “do all we can to be sure we are providing the environment for kids and their families to feel comfortable enough to enjoy their time here.”
Maggie Lancaster, Executive Director at the GRCM, spoke at the ceremony. “It has been a decade long journey and are humbled to have someone recognize the hard work that has been put forth by so many staff members, volunteers, board members and community partners at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum,” she said. “A primary goal of the GRCM is being the advocate of play for all. Having partners like the Autism Alliance of Michigan means we can further our mission and provide all families this much needed necessity in a child’s life.”
Tammy Morris, AAoM’s Chief Program Officer, also spoke at the ceremony as she presented the Seal of Approval to the children’s museum. She said, “When our team is able to navigate families and different learners to an inspiring cultural venue like the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, we take pause to celebrate. Our Autism Alliance of Michigan Seal of Approval signifies our confidence in the warm welcomes, thorough staff training, and safe place for autism families to visit, play, and learn.”
There were around 80 people in attendance for the official Autism Alliance Seal of Approval ceremony at the GRCM, which is located in the center of downtown Grand Rapids, Mich. That included museum staff and board of directors, AAoM staff, representatives for other non-profit organizations, and other area leaders.
The decade-long work at the museum to make it autism friendly has been extensive, to say the least, and nothing short of incredible. The staff members have participated in extensive training through the AAoM and other programs to become more aware of Autism Spectrum Disorder and related special needs, sensory issues, and safety concerns and procedures. That training was completed on the day of the ceremony with AAoM’s Safety Safety Specialist, Sgt. Scott Schuelke, who is retired from the Lansing Police Department with 25 years of law enforcement experience.
The GRCM building itself has undergone radical changes as well to ensure that everyone – including those with ASD – feels welcome and comfortable enough to visit and play. The museum originally had mostly bright, primary colors throughout the building – bright yellows, reds, and blues – but the entire building has been repainted with a new color palette specially crafted for those with sensory issues. The carpet has been replaced to have a less stimulating pattern. Dimming lights and pull-down barriers between exhibits allow the museum staff to limit stimuli for those with sensory issues.
“It’s not just that one Saturday – you can come here anytime,” AAoM’s Tammy Morris said of the GRCM. “The staff here knows autism, and they make sure you’re safe and comfortable here.”
While the GRCM has been redesigned to be autism friendly at all times, they also post online when field trips and groups are scheduled to be at the museum, in case parents want to bring their children at a less busy and quieter time. Special events are also held specifically for children with special needs.
“We have special nights for those on the spectrum, or any kind of sensory issue, where we dim the lighting, we take away any of our louder exhibits, bring in additional sensory activities, and often a music therapist on site for the evening,” Adrienne Brown-Reasner told The Autism Site. On those nights the GRCM will also “limit the number of guests in the building and even offer valet parking to make it easier to get in and out of the museum – all at no cost for those attending.”
Helping children and families deal with ASD goes beyond the physical limitations of the museum now, too. The GRCM recently started offering Sensory Tool Kits at the front desk that can be checked out completely free of charge. These kits include noise-reducing headphones, weighted vests and suspenders, fidget bands, and emotion flashcards. The GRCM hopes that families take advantage of the Sensory Tool Kits to make things easier at home between visits to the museum. And for families planning a trip to the museum, they also offer the GRCM Social Story, which includes information about what families can expect to see and experience in the different exhibits there.
The Autism Alliance of Michigan’s mission is “to lead collaborative efforts across the state that will improve the quality of life for individuals with autism through education, comprehensive services, community awareness, inclusion efforts, and coordinated advocacy.” In order to receive the Autism Alliance Seal of Approval, an organization or institution must participate in a full-staff safety training course, create a social narrative and/or sensory map to help families prepare for their visit, and undergo a free Safety and Sensory Audit Walk-Through with a member of AAoM’s MiNavigator and Safety Program Staff.
The Autism Site applauds the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum for their incredible work to create a safe, friendly, and inclusive environment for those on the autism spectrum and other special needs; they’ve gone above and beyond with staff training and building renovations.
Jacob H. is an award-winning journalist and photojournalist who currently resides is West Michigan with his wife. In his spare time, Jacob enjoys writing, photography, mountain climbing, and camping.