Pixie Dust, a children’s event venue in Bay Shore, offers sensory-friendly parties, events and open play times — sessions in which children play with an assortment of colored bins full of “kinetic sand,” uncooked oatmeal and water beads.
Bounce! Trampoline Sports, in Syosset, offers Sensational Kids, a weekly open play session where children with autism, their parents, siblings and friends jump on trampolines the size of racquetball courts and launch themselves into pits of small, colored foam squares.
Theater Three, a performing arts center in Port Jefferson, holds sensory-friendly performances where house lights remain on, sound levels are lower, there is no intermission, patrons can freely move around the auditorium, and clean blankets and stuffed animals are in the lobby should a child need a break.
Rising numbers of businesses on Long Island are making their offerings more accessible and comfortable for children with autism and sensory sensitivities.
National chains such as AMC Theatres and Toys R Us have also launched initiatives that cater to the families of children with sensory sensitivities. Chuck E. Cheese’s tested its Sensory Sensitive Sundays concept on Long Island and plans to roll it out nationally on World Autism Awareness Day, April 2.
Sensory sensitivity occurs when a person has difficulty processing everyday sensory information, according to the National Autistic Society, a U.K. advocacy and charity organization. Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both at different times, and can result in sensory overload, which leads to stress, anxiety and physical pain.
At least three quarters of children on the autism spectrum display significant sensory processing symptoms, estimates the Sensory Therapies and Research Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit. However, other disorders, such as Sensory Processing Disorder, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, cause sensory sensitivities in children.
Business owners sometimes have children with disabilities in their own lives. But there are also strong business reasons for reaching out to families with these children, such as attracting the loyalty of a growing demographic, staying competitive and being recognized as socially responsible.
“Some of the behaviors displayed by children on the spectrum make it really difficult for their parents to enjoy going out into the community,” said Dianne Porter, a board-certified behavior analyst who has worked with special-needs families for almost 30 years. Porter owns Holbrook-based Missing Piece Awareness Inc., a company that trains businesses in autism awareness and acceptance.
“Sometimes business owners ask parents to leave when their child is having a meltdown,” Porter said. The parents become distraught, and the company loses a sale and a customer.
“There are small modifications businesses can make to be more accommodating to people with special needs,” Porter said. “There’s a bigger picture we need to look at, people with autism are not going away,” she said.
In 2014 the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network estimated autism occurred in about 1 in 68 children. That estimate has risen steadily: In 2007 the network reported that about 1 in 150 children had autism spectrum disorder.
New York State reported that during the 2012-13 school year, 26,964 children 3 to 21 years old who received special education services had autism. The data are the most recent available; information for Long Island is not available.
Birthdays in Bay Shore
At Pixie Dust, which opened in June, one third of the parties it hosts are for special-needs children, including children with autism and different disabilities.
Raquel Noriega, who worked in commercial real estate management for 20 years, decided to buy a children’s party venue because of her experience with her daughter, Ava, now 3, who was diagnosed with autism at 15 months.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Some symptoms include having trouble communicating using typical words or gestures, having trouble adapting to changes in routines, and having unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel or sound, among others.
“From a mom’s point of view, there aren’t many places children with special needs can go,” Noriega said. “So I decided to create one.”
During sensory play time, children with sensory sensitivities often enjoy running their fingers through the textured materials she provides and touching the items in each bin. It provides a soothing effect for some kids, Noriega said.
Noriega, whose staff was trained by Missing Piece Awareness Inc., tailors each party to the child.
“We can adjust and accommodate to whatever needs the child has,” she said. “We can limit the lighting, the music, anything at all that might be a trigger.”
“I had a child come in that had a fear of feathers, so I removed anything and everything in the room with feathers. For others it might be a particular color that triggers them.”
Noriega said she books four to eight parties a week, on average, costing $385 for a package for 12 children.
She’s had “hundreds of requests” to franchise, she said, but is not ready to take that step. “The demand is there,” she said.
Bouncing for Business
Bounce! offers its Sensational Kids events on Mondays from 5 to 7 p.m. in its 52,000 square-foot space. It offers the events exclusively for families and friends of children with autism. It costs $12 per hour for children to bounce; parents and caretakers jump for free.
On average, about 60 people attend.
At an event in March, Matthew Kalmenson, of Kings Park, bounces on a trampoline alongside his 13-year-old son, Jake, whose midair smile is so big you can almost see all of his teeth.
Jake, who has autism and is nonverbal, is not interested in many things, said his mother, Shannon Kalmenson, who was a few feet away on the sidelines.
“He doesn’t really play games, and since he can’t speak to express, I like bringing him here because I can tell he’s happy,” she said.
“If more businesses had events or special nights like this one and were so welcoming and made us feel comfortable, we would go.”
Bounce! manager Rachel Fain said, “We had an overwhelming amount of requests from parents to do something like this.”
Staff members at Bounce! received a three-hour autism sensitivity training session from Debora Thivierge, founder of the Elija School, a private school for children with autism, in Levittown.
Employees learn to differentiate between children who have autism and those with other disorders such as Down syndrome so that they’re better equipped to serve children who come to the business. They learn the range of behaviors autistic children may display when they feel overly sensitive to sound, light, large crowds or sudden changes in temperature.
“I really try to get to know the staff and the business so I can help them modify their environment,” Thivierge said.
She found that Bounce! employees were worried about children having “full-blown outbursts,” so she helped them draft a protocol of what to do.
“Employees need to be calm,” she said.
Her suggestions: “Create a plan. Try to block the child, create a physical barrier so that no one is able to stare at them, and tell the families in the vicinity to please leave the area. Do not ask the parent if their child has a disability, instead just ask, ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ ”
Sensitivity training classes by Thivierge usually range from $500 to $1,000 per session. She has done about five in the last couple of months, she said.
Reaching for the Sky
Sky Zone, in Mount Sinai and Deer Park, hosts Sky Zone Cares events once a month for “adults and children with any and all special needs.” The events are geared to children with sensory sensitivities: The lights are dimmed, staff is increased and capacity is limited.
The business’ employees were trained by Porter of Missing Piece Awareness, which charges $850 to train up to 10 employees.
Porter requires employees to participate in a range of hands-on activities and games.
“What we’re trying to do is give employees a sense of what it feels like to be autistic,” Porter said. “Each employee must take a test and pass it in order to receive a training certificate.”
Anthony Grassa, manager of the 26,000-square-foot Sky Zone in Mount Sinai, said the company has held about six training sessions.
“I’d say about 70 percent of our staff has gone through at least one,” he said.
Porter helped the company develop a “social story,” which is a picture booklet that shows what a child can expect at a Sky Zone facility and some of the rules, Grassa said.
And Porter has become a liaison between the business and the autism community.
“Most people find out about our event through word-of-mouth, or they’ll share information about it with each other on Facebook,” Grassa said. He estimated up to 70 people attend events, on average.
Kristen Guetter, of Sound Beach, attended a Sky Zone Cares event with her 5-year-old son, Liam, who is on the autism spectrum, for the first time in February, after attending regular Sky Zone sessions previously.
“It was a completely different experience,” she said. “I can’t even put it into words how amazing it feels knowing that businesses are starting to offer these types of events for our son.”
“We felt so comfortable and free, and Liam had so much fun hanging out in the foam pit.”
Guetter says one of the challenges of visiting public places is fending off unwanted attention from people who don’t understand why her “son makes certain noises.”
“But at an event like this, it’s a judgment-free zone,” she said.
Plays in Port Jefferson
Theater Three began offering $10-a-ticket sensory sensitivity-friendly performances as part of its children’s theater program in October.
“We felt the community of children with autism was not being served particularly well,” said Jeffrey Sanzel, who has been the artistic director of Theater Three for 26 years.
Parents can review a social story with their children ahead of time to prepare them for the performance.
Sanzel says the theater has held three sensory-friendly performances for about 80 to 130 people in each.
“But even having 30 in the crowd would be OK,” he said. “What’s important is that the service is there and available.”
Two other theaters that offer such performances are the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre in Oakdale and the Long Island Children’s Museum in Garden City.
Christopher Clark, 27, who is autistic, attended a show last year at Theater Three with his mother, Lisa Clark, of Mount Sinai.
“He loves musicals and plays too, and when we go watch a movie or play, he’s not able to contain his excitement,” Clark said. “He just gets so happy that he usually stands up, claps or yells out in joy, and there’s been times when the people in front of us at the theater have told us to remove ourselves . . . It’s so nice to know that we’re welcome, that it’s OK, that we’ll be accepted if something were to happen, and we don’t have to stay home.”