Like most 7-year-olds, Tyus Hall enjoys going to the park or the movies on weekends. But he dislikes loud sounds, and has trouble controlling his own noise level in public places.
At the Sensory Saturday event at the Miami Children’s Museum, however. Tyus and his mother, Jessica Allatines, don’t have to worry about those issues.
“My son is autistic, and we wanted to find something that he could enjoy and do freely without any restrictions,” Allatines said.
The monthly program is reserved for children with special needs and their families. The museum offers a reduced fee and allows special-needs kids to explore the galleries in an environment with adjusted lighting and sounds, minimal crowds and activities tailored just for them.
Children with autism and developmental disabilities are prone to suffer from hyper- or hyposensitivity to light and sound.
In Florida, one in 88 boys is affected by this condition, according to Liana Gonzalez, visiting instructor of special education at Florida International University.
Affected children may experience sensory overload in places normally considered to be kid-friendly, such as an ice cream parlor.
“They could begin crying and seek out their parents if there is lots of noise, a lot of people, or even too much color,” said Gonzalez.
The Miami Children’s Museum galleries normally feature visual displays with bright, colorful lights, up-beat music and even sirens to attract the children’s attention.
For the Sensory Saturdays program, all of these displays are toned down, and activities featuring dimmed lighting and “soothing” classical music are incorporated.
Another difference is the minimal crowds.
The museum receives five to six hundred visitors on typical Saturdays, but only 50 to 75 during Sensory Saturday’s two-hour event.
“It’s like a Catch 22,” said Angelica Bradley, public programs coordinator at the Miami Children’s Museum. “We want it to be popular, but we don’t want it to be too crowded because the idea is for it to be quiet.”
Roberto Dominguez, father of two, brings his children to the special program because of the smaller crowds.
He said the staff members are more “understanding” of his child’s special needs.
“When you come during regular hours, they don’t know which kid is which, but they know what kind of kids are here today, so they are ready for it,” he said.
Since the program started in July, Dominguez has brought his kids, Estrella, 5, and Roberto, 7, five times to Sensory Saturday.
The younger Roberto eagerly played with a life-size police motorcycle, as he had the entire “Safety Zone” area to himself.
“Like right now, he is concentrating on what he is doing, he doesn’t have that loud background and doesn’t get distracted,” said Dominguez. “When there is not as many people, you don’t have a hundred kids screaming around him at the same time.”
The reduced crowds also make the program more accessible for children with physical disabilities and ensure that each family is granted one-on-one attention from the educators and instructors.
The museum staff received training, which involved simulating certain disabilities on themselves. They wore earplugs, glasses with impaired visibility, crutches and wheelchairs while moving through the galleries.
Thanks to a grant, the museum is able to host some groups free of charge, but they are still seeking more funding for sponsorships.
“We actually started with no budget whatsoever, we just took it out of our programming budget because we thought it was so important,” said Bradley.
Sensory Saturday visitors pay $6 instead of the regular $16 admission fee.
FIU’s Gonzalez said such programs allow the children to socialize with their peers where they otherwise would tend to isolate themselves.
“Many of these children miss out on having those average childhood experiences and social interactions,” she said. “This type of program essentially grants them equal access to enjoy and play with each other.”
The next Sensory Saturday will take place on Feb. 9.