Sensory Sensitive Sundays mindful of autism and other needs


Various businesses and organizations provide stimulation-conscious environments for children with disabilities such as autism.

By Tim Smith

 

Autism Spectrum Disorder has received more national attention lately, thanks to organizations like the Center for Autism and Related Disorders and Autism Speaks. They have taken the high road to increase the public’s awareness and acceptance of this developmental disability. The family entertainment chain Chuck E. Cheese’s decided to take it one step further, and found success along the way.

Chuck E. Cheese’s offers a sensory-friendly experience on the first Sunday of every month. The Sensory Sensitive Sundays experience includes less crowding and noise, dimmed lighting, show and music turned off or down, and limited appearances by Chuck E. Cheese. Food and games are offered, but parents are permitted to bring snacks for their children if needed due to dietary restrictions. The company began testing the program in January of this year at 54 restaurants in the northeast region, which confirmed there was a big desire from their guests for a sensory-friendly program. They then expanded the program nationally on April 2, 2017, tied to World Autism Awareness Day.

Ami Anderson is the Senior Director of Media and Advertising for the parent company, CEC Entertainment. She says that the concept had humble beginnings, but grew quickly.

“The idea originated from a single Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant in Attleboro, Massachusetts,” she says. “Amanda Moniz, an outreach coordinator for CARD (Center for Autism and Related Disorders) went to the restaurant and simply asked the general manager if they would be willing to open early for her nephew, who has Autism, and the restaurant agreed. The event received so much positive attention and local media that we got wind of it in the marketing department at our corporate headquarters. We loved the idea, so we reached out to the local restaurant to find out all of the details and the rest is history.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. There is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates autism’s prevalence as 1 in 68 children in the United States. This includes 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls. Around 1/3 of people with autism have an intellectual disability.

“The reaction to the program has been overwhelmingly positive,” Anderson says. “We receive feedback from guests all the time who were able to take their children to Chuck E. Cheese’s for the first time ever, which is a special experience for them. Over this past year, we’ve definitely seen increased attendance during the program times by families and children who face sensory challenges. We strive to be a place where all kids can be a kid and we think our guests have been accepting and accommodating to the program. Participating stores open two hours early, so there isn’t any disruption for other guests seeking the standard Chuck E. Cheese’s experience.”

A survey of other family entertainment providers in the Dayton area revealed some that will accommodate guests with special needs. Scene 75 hosts a Special Needs Day on the first Thursday of every month, in addition to private parties. The Learning Express in Centerville offers monthly arts and crafts activities but pointed out that these events tend to be noisy. The Mystery Shop is a traveling group that will tailor their whodunit “Clue”-type shows for children and adults with special needs.

As with any new program dealing with a special population, some initial training was required. Chuck E. Cheese’s brought in some expert help to work with their staff members.

“CARD helped identify elements of the Chuck E. Cheese’s experience that might be overwhelming or overstimulating for sensory-sensitive kids and provided us with actionable ways we could make the experience more enjoyable and suitable for children who face sensory challenges,” Anderson says. “Specifically, through smaller crowds, dimmed lighting, the show and music turned off or down, and limited appearances by costumed characters. They also equipped us with a comprehensive Staff Training Guide, which includes useful tips for our employees when working with children with ASD.”

Anderson notes that the positive response to the monthly offering has drawn the attention and support of professionals in the field of developmental disabilities.

“We’ve seen tremendous support from local Autism Speaks and Autism Society chapters via sharing information about the program on their social media pages, which has helped us get the word out to families who might enjoy this type of program,” she says. “We’ve also seen support from local schools and centers for autism who have reached out to us to see how they can help spread the word. The support has been incredible. Though we haven’t made any significant changes to the program, through our partnership with CARD, we’re always thinking about ways that we can continue to improve and expand the program, as well as through fee dback we receive from guests and employees.”

“We hope that families and children who haven’t been able to experience the fun of Chuck E. Cheese’s will finally have that opportunity,” Anderson says. “We’re proud to provide an environment for children who face sensory challenges and give them the same chance to enjoy Chuck E. Cheese’s as their peers do.”

Sensory Sensitive Sundays take place on the first Sunday of each month from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. at Chuck E. Cheese’s, 30 Prestige Place, Miamisburg, OH, 45342. For more information, visit chuckecheeses.com or call 937.439.2364.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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