Loud noises, bright lights and crowded spaces: Individuals affected by autism face a number of challenges in public. The Grand Rapids Children's Museum (GRCM), however, believes everyone has the right to play—and that right extends to those affected by autism.
On January 30, 2017, the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) presented the Autism Alliance Seal of Approval to GRCM for its decade-long journey toward creating a safe and welcoming space for autism families.
"When our team is able to navigate families and different learners to an inspiring cultural venue like the Grand Rapids Children's Museum, we take pause to celebrate," said Tammy Morris, AAoM's Chief Program Officer. "Our Autism Alliance of Michigan Seal of Approval signifies our confidence in the warm welcomes, thorough staff training and safe place for autism families to visit, play and learn."
GRCM is the first venue in West Michigan to receive the seal and the second in the state, sharing the honor only with the Detroit Zoo.
The museum's work began with Teresa Thome, former executive director. A few years into her tenure, Thome was in a meeting when she learned her counterpart's grandson, Connor, had autism.
"I asked her if she might consider helping us create a night at the museum that would serve Connor and children like him," Thome said. "She gave a resounding yes."
Thome brought the idea to the staff, and the team worked their magic. They engaged autism specialists. Reached out to college students for volunteers on the floor. Dimmed the lights. Provided valet service. They imagined every possible challenge a family affected by autism could face—and did their best to make "Connor's Night" an amazing experience for the kids.
Ever since, GRCM has continuously taken strides to better welcome and accommodate autism families. It has changed the color palate from primary colors, redesigned the logo, secured a grant for shades to pull down in the middle of the museum to help make the space less "busy" and acquired ASD Sensory Resource Toolkits, which guests can check out at the front desk. Most recently, over 30 staff members and volunteers attended a two-hour safety training presentation from AAoM.
And in honor of the child who inspired it all, GRCM hosts two events during the year just for families affected by autism. The events, called "Connor's Friends," are on June 7 and November 8, 2017 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
"Our staff lives, eats and breathes diversity and the philosophy of acceptance and respect for all," said Maggie Lancaster, GRCM Executive Director. "It's in their blood, and it seeps into everything we do."
Learn more about a visit to GRCM at www.grcm.org.
Photo courtesy of Jacob Hunsanger, Wardrobe Photography. Pictured (from left): Aleicia Woodrick, Carla Morris and Maggie Lancaster of GRCM and Tammy Morris with AAoM.