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Kids with autism 'can completely be themselves' at Explore & More's Au-Some Evenings

Buffalo News - 11/8/2019

Nov. 7--Some stand in front of the water feature, fixated, for up to half an hour. Some push to the front of the line, no matter how many others stand in the way. Some beam over a hands-on exhibit one minute -- and pitch a fit the next.

None of it matters when kids with autism have exclusive run at Explore & More -- The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children's Museum at Canalside during the second Friday evening of every month.

"The prevailing attitude is that there are no judgments," Kathy Doody said. "Kids can completely be themselves."

Doody, an associate professor in the Exceptional Education Department at SUNY Buffalo State, and Jana Mertz, program coordinator with the Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at John R. Oishei Children's Hospital, worked with the museum to create Au-Some Evenings.

The event, started in 2012 when Explore & More was in East Aurora, quickly drew children with autism and other sensory challenges to a place where they could play freely and safely under the watchful eyes of staff, while parents compared notes about how best to nurture and support those children -- and themselves.

It has grown in popularity since gatherings began last May in the new museum, a $29 million centerpiece for family fun along the Buffalo waterfront.

"We're very accessible right now," Doody said. "We're near mass transit and we're reaching populations that we just were not able to reach before."

Museum capacity normally stands at about 1,200 people but organizers cap Au-Some Evening at 250. This gives those with autism more meaningful ways to experience Explore & More, Doody said.

Her son Kevin, 23, has autism, which includes a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors and speech.

Crowds, noise and new surroundings can sometimes excite, and sometimes overwhelm, those with autism. At times, they stand transfixed when something captures their imagination. Other times, discomfort spurs loud outbursts, dropping to the ground, or rocking back and forth.

"Typically, others might turn on stare and wonder, 'Why is this child acting this way?' " Doody said. "Here at Au-Some Evening, all of the families have walked in each other's shoes. If one child pushes another out of the way because they're anxious to get somewhere, there's never any resentment or bad feelings because parents know, 'That could have very easily been my child doing the pushing.' ... It's never aggression for aggression sake. It's, 'You're standing in my way and I don't have the words to tell you please move, so I'm going to move you.' "

Usually more than a dozen volunteer education students from the University at Buffalo and Doody's SUNY Buffalo State classes also help.

"The first thing you're going to see is just complete and total acceptance" with how things unfold, said Amelia Blake, director of education with Explore & More.

Visitors can enjoy regular exhibits on the four floors of Explore & More for free during each Au-Some Evening. A music therapist and therapy dog also pay a visit during the special hours, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Sam Myers, 4, of Kenmore, favors the Moving Water exhibit, which includes a flowing water table, water wheel and 30-foot spillway. He also likes the Playing Together and Lighting Buffalo's Imagination exhibits.

When he gets overloaded, he can duck into one of two small sensory rooms in the museum, pop on a pair of noise-reducing headphones and twist and turn in a swivel chair. Modern artwork, a bubbling-water light and lots of pillows also are part of the mix.

Sam has become an Au-Some Evening regular, along with his twin 1-year-old siblings, Eleanor and Thomas, and their moms, Laura and Kathryn Myers, a social worker and nurse, respectively.

"It's really great for us that we can do something as an entire family," Laura Myers said.

Sam was diagnosed with autism at age 2 1/2 . He attends a preschool for kids with special needs. He likes to run around at dinnertime. "Museums are pretty much the same way," Laura Myers said.

"He'd rather touch and feel the paintings" than experience them from a distance, Kathryn Myers said with a smile. "They frown on that at the Burchfield Penney."

Museum staff welcomes children and young adults to Au-Some Evenings.

"We gear this toward kids with autism or sensory issues," Blake said. "The beauty though is that they're welcome to bring anybody they want with them. They can bring their neighbors, their nephews, whoever, because we want it to be inclusive."

Au-Some Evenings are part of a larger structure of support for those on the autism spectrum and their loved ones.

Doody and Mertz lead a family support group from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. the second Wednesday of each month at Aspire in Cheektowaga. The two also organize a subsidized jump every Sunday at Sky Zone and monthly visits to the Niagara Falls Aquarium. Doody also runs a private Au-Some Parents Facebook page for families of children with autism spectrum disorder.

It all seems like a dream to Doody, who watched her son grow and benefit since his mid-teens from connections he's made during Au-Some Evenings and related events.

"Years ago," the teacher said as she stood inside Explore & More, "a place like this was completely inaccessible to me. It might as well have been 1,000 miles away because we just couldn't go. His behaviors were so intensive. People stared. We were asked to leave anywhere we went. So it's been kind of like finding kindred spirits because all of the staff here, they just get it.

"We don't judge because we have no idea what your day was like before you walked through that door," she added. "Any family that comes in, they could have just had a very, very challenging day, and we want them to put all that aside and just have fun when they're here. At the end of the night, everybody says, 'My face hurts from smiling so much.' "

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Those interested in participating in the autism support community can email Doody at krdoody@buffalo.edu; those interested in learning more about Explore & More programs for exceptional children can email accessibility@exploreandmore.org.

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