My name is Savannah Dorset and I am a Discovery Guide at the Children’s Museum of Houston. The Museum hosts a quarterly Sensory Friendly Day where the entire museum is closed to the public except for children on the autism spectrum and their families. A cause very near and dear to my heart as I have two cousins who are both autistic.
My grand pet project to combine 21-Tech and autism outreach all started with a single off handed comment by a visitor last fall. During one of the Sensory Friendly Days, I noticed a little boy wearing a set of noise cancelling headphones and I began chatting with his mom about my own cousins wearing something similar when it becomes too loud or overwhelming for them. The conversation turned to adaptive/coping devices in general and I told her about how my cousin Cary just got an iPad and how much it has helped calm him down and, finally, for the first time, actually communicate with us — a true miracle in my eyes as he is fourteen years old and completely non-verbal. The mom commented that she wished there were apps specifically designed for kids with autism. I thought to myself, “There has to be something.” I mentioned it to my mother and the next day, we were sending links back and forth to each other about what we found. Suddenly, I had a new obsession. How could we bring all of this to the ASD children who visited the museum?
I set a goal that by the next Sensory Friendly Day in February, not only would we have iPads on the floor, but that I would have some sort of information resource for parents about various apps. And boy, was there plenty to choose from! Using the absolutely invaluable search tool Autism Apps, a fantastic searchable database of all apps specifically designed for those on the autism spectrum, we created a flyer which highlighted seven apps. All of them were free and addressed specific behaviors or traits that are common in children on the autism spectrum. For example, one app called Model Me Going Places walks a child through a variety of social situations (going to the grocery store, the mall, the playground, etc.) and prompts via words and pictures appropriate social behavior. The back of the flyer had information about various grants and programs to help parents purchase an iPad. Armed with that and a handful of Discovery Guides who were very comfortable with the technology, we were ready to go.
The collaboration was a success! The whole day was full of amazing moments such as a child pausing mid-tantrum to sit on the floor with me and ‘draw’ using the Glow Doodle app, much to the obvious relief of his mother. Several special education teachers grabbed flyers with slightly awed “Why didn’t I know about this stuff?” expressions. I think for many of the Discovery Guides, they really understood how the iPad can truly be something to enhance an interaction with a child. One Discovery Guide confessed to me that she was at first very nervous about Sensory Friendly Day, but that the iPad was an amazing help. It gave her that perfect opening to start a conversation.
Positive feedback for Sensory Friendly day is still coming in to the museum from parents who are already looking forward to the next one. With the success of this first collaboration, we have received permission to expand with more apps. For me mostly, it was just a profound experience. I took a little kernel of an idea and helped it grow into something I hope might help a lot of children. Pretty great for a day’s work.
Or a few months’ work.