On the second Friday of every month, Explore & More – The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum at Canalside opens exclusively for children with autism, giving them a chance to enjoy its many exhibits and just be themselves in a fun, safe, judgment-free environment.
The program, known as Au-Some Evenings, was introduced by the museum in collaboration with Kathy 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.
According to a report this month by Buffalo News.com, the program began in 2012, and quickly attracted many children with autism and their families by offering safe and supervised fun. The museum also offers an enormous space for children with autism to play and explore. Initially located in East Aurora, the museum’s new facility new, 43,000 square foot facility is eight times the size of its former location and is more centrally located as well.
Doody emphasized the judgment-free nature of the program as one of its most important aspects.
“Typically, others might turn on stare and wonder, ‘Why is this child acting this way?’” she 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.”
Admission is free, thanks to sponsorship from the Summit Center, the Maria Love Convalescent Fund, and other institutions. In addition to regular exhibits, the program features a therapy dog and music therapist from 5:00 to 8:00 pm.
Doody, whose son has autism, marveled at the event, which she said would never have been accessible to her in the past.
“Years ago,” Doody said, “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.”