CONCORD –– For kids on the autism spectrum, sometimes the hustle and bustle of everyday life can cause sensory over-stimulation. This makes it harder for parents to bring their children to places other kids may frequent.
Brianna Nowak, the former Marketing and Sales Executive at Sea Life Aquarium in Concord, and Ariel Kanupp, Sea Life’s Education Specialist, understand this and wanted to provide options for these kids and their parents.
To address the needs of the local autistic community, they started a program they’re calling “Sensory Sundays,” where they provide a more friendly environment for kids with sensory sensitivities.
Nowak and Kanupp worked together to spearhead the project for the aquarium.
“We came up with the idea and we reached out to the Autism Society of North Carolina,” Nowak said, “We had one of the ladies come out and walk the aquarium with Ariel and I and point out everything that we need to change.”
They discussed with the Society the need for activities for children with sensory disorders in the area, as well.
“They were all about it,” Nowak said. “There aren’t a lot of things that are adapted for that.”
“We would get a lot of special needs groups coming through,” said Kanupp, “and we thought that there was sort of a need in the community to have this sort of programming.”
From there, the idea started to take shape, and they decided to designate one Sunday morning each month from 9 to 11 to kids with sensory sensitivities. During that time, Sea Life is closed to the public and open only for these children and their parents.
They’ve created a sensory guide to give to parents that rates each exhibit for each of the senses. If something is very visually, stimulating, it gets a five. If it’s not, it gets a one. On Sensory Sundays, certain sounds and videos are turned down or off, along with some lighting effects.
They’ve also designated a specific “comfort room” where children and parents feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated can go to calm down. There, they provide comforting objects, like stuffed animals and toys.
The program began in September, and since then, it’s received praise and positive reception from parents, Kanupp said. And that’s what makes it so rewarding for her.
“They’re just really appreciative to have a space that feels controlled and to have a little bit of freedom within that space,” she said.
She also said that they plan to expand such programs for other special needs groups.
Kanupp said that the other Sea Life branches have also expressed interest in the idea and that it isn’t hard for the aquarium to modify their exhibits for this purpose, which made them even more eager to offer the program.
“It’s something that isn’t hard for us to accommodate for other people,” Nowak said. “What we get back from providing to them is just so nice, it’s worth seeing.”