By BETSY TAYLOR
HOSPITAL SISTERS HEALTH SYSTEM
Special needs children who attended a special night out just for them and their families at the Children's Museum of Eau Claire in Wisconsin had a blast pretending to be dairy farmers, splashing in a water play area and riding scooters inside.
Therapists with St. Joseph's Hospital Speech, Physical and Occupational Therapy Services program who routinely work with special needs children did some advanced planning, so that families could prepare the kids for the museum event. Before the gathering this spring, they took photos of different areas of the museum and created visual/social narratives sent in advance to parents and care providers.
These narratives provided photos of each play area and written descriptions of what to expect there to prepare the kids for the upcoming change in their routine. This type of preparation is especially important for children with autism, who tend to absorb information better when it's presented visually.
Lindsay Pohlen, speech language pathologist for the Chippewa Falls, Wis., hospital, said therapists suggested that parents or care providers review the printed materials with children several times in advance of the visit, as repetition and familiarity can decrease anxiety in autistic children.
At the museum, therapists had set up camping tents on each floor, so that if a child began to feel overwhelmed, he or she could take a breather alone for a few minutes. The therapists had put some noise-reducing headphones inside the tents and some small "fidgets," like stress balls and squeeze toys, in case any of the children wanted to grip those to reduce stress or anxiety. The therapists dimmed lights in a particularly bright room (there weren't any children in attendance with vision problems who needed the bright light), and shut down an iPad station for the evening. If the iPads had been an option, "We thought that's all they'd want to do. We wanted them to play and engage with others," said Melissa Haas, occupational therapist and outpatient therapy supervisor for the program.
Families of the 16 children who signed up in advance and attended were charged $3.50 per child, with dinner provided for the children and their parents or care providers. Therapists asked that siblings not attend, so that the children with special needs could be the night's focus. More than 20 employees from the hospital, including 15 therapists, assisted at the event, as did some University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire students studying adaptive physical education. Haas said the planners worked to make sure not too many grown-ups were around the children at any one time because they didn't want to overwhelm the children.
The availability of staff meant kids got plenty of one-on-one attention. For instance a physical therapist who had worked with one of the preschool-aged children before, and knew well how the child with cerebral palsy likes to be positioned, was able to provide physical support in a way that let the child play comfortably in the exhibits.
The event also served as an educational opportunity for parents and care providers who asked questions about everything from motor skill development to how to encourage a picky eater to eat a balanced diet.
The hospital is about a 20 minute drive from the Eau Claire museum; Pohlen said a few families traveled from about an hour away, because they had a child who wanted to take part.
Haas said the children played with each other and with their parents, and the parents got to relax. Sometimes when out in public a parent of a special needs child might feel judged by others who don't know a child has special needs, or the parent may need to be constantly vigilant, trying to anticipate issues that might arise. At the museum, "They knew the expectation was different, and they're not judged for what they're doing or not doing."
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