Inclusion at Play: Grand Rapids Children’s Museum Helps All Families Feel Welcome

An afternoon at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

For many parents, the idea is a fun-filled way to burn through their kids’ abundance of energy. For parents of children with autism, it’s not always quite that simple.

Recognizing that children with autism have different needs has inspired many initiatives at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, the first museum in the state to receive the Autism Alliance of Michigan’s Autism Seal of Approval.

“We want to be a safe place for everyone,” said Executive Director Maggie Lancaster. “If we are going to welcome children in, we’re going to welcome all children.”

“At a time when we worry about excessive screen time exposure, we look to warm and creative people like those at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum to create opportunities for families to learn and explore together,” said Tammy Morris, chief program officer, Autism Alliance of Michigan.

To start, the museum hosts two “Connor’s Friends” nights per year, just for families affected by autism. The lights are dimmed, appropriate sensory activities are added and lots of quiet spaces are set up to help everyone feel comfortable. The events are supported by Wolverine Worldwide and Autism Support of Kent County.

“Our staff would say those are our favorite nights of the whole year,” Lancaster said.

But it’s not just two nights a year that kids with autism are welcomed and included.

“I want all families to be aware that you don’t have to wait for Connor’s Friends to bring your kids here,” said Rachel McKay, Professional Development and Inclusion Liaison.

Sensory backpacks that include noise-reduction headphones, weighted vests and suspenders, emotion recognition flashcards, fidget bracelets and more are available to check out at the front desk, free of charge.

Museum staff created a story guide to help prepare children visiting the museum for the first time on what they can expect. Parents are able to look at an online field trip tracker on the museum’s home page to determine the best times to take their children to avoid large crowds. All employees have undergone training from the Autism Alliance of Michigan on how to best meet the needs of their patrons with autism.

Even the museum’s décor reflects the organization’s efforts to be a friendly and inclusive space for children and adults with autism. A completely revamped color palette went from bright, primary hues to more subtle, muted tones.

“Every single color in this museum has been proven as a user-safe color,” Lancaster said.

The attention to detail is a welcome relief to parents of children with autism, who just want to feel like they can have experiences as a family without worrying about judgment from others who might not understand autism and all the ways it can present in children, McKay said. She explained that museum staff celebrate and allow children to express their full range of feelings.

“If you’re not sensitive to it, it’s easy to feel kind of isolated and we want to be a place that combats that and shows children that they are absolutely perfect as they are,” McKay said.

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Main image photo credit: Steven Depolo, All other photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Children’s Museum

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