Pacific Science Center Launches Program for Autistic Children

By: Lauren Mang

Accessibility is a high priority at the Pacific Science Center. A quick glance at the science and technology museum’s website and you’ll find a swath of helpful services it offers its visitors: complimentary wheelchairs, free admission for aides accompanying guests with disabilities, a friendly welcome to service animals and more. And this January, thanks to a grant and strategic partnership with Safeco Insurance, the center launched its monthly program, Exploration For All: Autism Early Open, for families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
On the second Saturday of each month (note in April it’s the third Saturday), the Pacific Science Center opens its doors from 8 to 10 a.m. to guests affected by ASD.  Children and adults have the ability to comfortably roam the exhibits, which have been specially altered with lower noise levels, brighter lighting and decreased visual stimuli, before the general public. What’s more, it’s all free.

“We want to reach out and serve the community in a very broad way so it’s not just about who can afford to come but how do we serve the entire community,” says Erik Pihl, vice president of development at the Pacific Science Center. “Over the years we’ve had a number of initiatives to make sure that we were removing barriers for accessibility and in regards to autism, we’ve learned about this need for different lighting levels and noise stimuli, which can negatively impact an experience or make it near impossible for parents to bring their children on the autism spectrum to visit.”

According to the Center for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, ASD affects 1 in 68 children and research shows that among the many signs and symptoms, people with ASD may have “unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel or sound.” In other words, experiencing the Science Center’s Sneeze Wall, which mists visitors with water, or the saltwater tide pool filled with sealife could be problematic.

During Exploration For All, the Pacific Science Center’s three buildings are open and attractions such as the typically loud, roaring Dinosaur Exhibit are quiet. It’s not as dark inside the Planetarium and families have the opportunity to explore and learn about constellations with a trained educator. To help navigate the center, visitors receive a printed Sensory Guide upon entry, which contains color-coded alerts to the different sight, sound, touch and smell levels that are present at each exhibit, giving parents the option to decide whether or not their child will be comfortable.

The center also worked with disability professionals in conjunction with Safeco Insurance to lead two different trainings for staff members on the basics of inclusion and how to support kids of all disability levels. “We’ve been able to train the frontline staff so they know what to look for and can use clear, concrete language when dealing with children with special needs,” says Kelly Posewitz, Pacific Science Center’s corporate relations officer.

Families have clearly been receptive to the monthly early-open event. The center has received glowing praise from many parents:

“This was a great time for us – being with other parents who aren’t going to stare or hustle their children away from mine if he becomes shrill. Everyone ‘gets it.’ It’s peace of mind for me and my husband.
“The quieter atmosphere is lovely and all of the staff were so calm and supportive (and didn’t seem to bat an eye at meltdowns or other unusual behaviors).”

Next month marks National Autism Awareness Month and the center will host its Exploration For All program on Saturday, April 18. In May, its popular Pompeii exhibit will feature lower sounds, brighter lights and an option to view to erupting volcano portion. For more information, visit pacificsciencecenter.org.