Sensory-friendly: a safe play place for children with autism


The Northtown Mall in Blaine, Minnesota, bustles with activities for children: a video game arcade, furry motor scooters shaped like animals, a bungee-cord trampoline you’d expect to see at a carnival. Among the flashing lights and commotion is Tony’s Place, which opened doors in October with a mission to cultivate an inclusive play space for people who live with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), their family members and friends.

Inside Tony’s Place you’ll find twinkling fairy lights wrap around various sensory swings that can hold multiple people, including children, adults and people with wheelchairs. A pallet of bubble wrap stands in an alcove, available for anyone to satisfy that tactile need. There’s a netted trampoline and physical activity center to help release physical energy. A darkened, quiet room with fluffy pillows, coloring books and glowing neon tubes full of toy fish; this is a place for anyone who simply needs to chill out and decompress.

Wendy Leigh Morina, proprietor of Tony’s Place, credits the creation of the space, and what toys and equipment to include in the space, to her son Tony.

“Tony showed me what he wanted here by demonstrating what he absolutely loves,” Morina said. “The cuddle swing that we spend hours in to help him sleep, the scent of lavender that helps to soothe, the fidget toys that help him cope.”

There is also a front-facing retail space where toys, tools and accessories previously available only online are for sale. Morina hopes to develop programming to help lessen the costs of pricier devices for families in tough financial circumstances.

“We’re no strangers to the sticker shock of special needs equipment,” Morina said. “It shouldn’t cost $6,000 to tell someone you have to go to the bathroom. People shouldn’t get rich off of disabled kids.”

Around the Twin Cities Metro Area, sensory-friendly hours have been introduced to popular family destinations such as the Como Zoo, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Walker Art Center. These events, according to Robyn DeCourcy, Education Program Specialist at the Autism Society of Minnesota, often include a social Narrative, a precise written text or visual map that helps make the space accessible and predictable for differing needs.

“Sensory processing is different for every person and we can’t control everything,” DeCourcy said. “It can’t be universal. It’s all about making the place predictable and preparing people for how it’s going to be.”

Local Twin Cities parent Jae Saxon has experienced the difficulties of accessing play spaces for their family, which includes children diagnosed with ASD and those who are undiagnosed.

“The spaces that seem like they’d be good for kids tend to be densely packed,” Saxon said. “We went to the Renaissance Festival, thinking the kid’s corner would be a fun place for our child Zahavi. He wants to pet the animals at the petting zoo, but then other children start running around and bumping into him. He’s [then] done so early with an activity he would’ve otherwise loved had the environment not been so overwhelming.”

There can be extra challenges accessing even the sensory-friendly hours at these popular spaces.

“I’m so proud of the community that has embraced sensory-friendly events,” Morina said, “but we can’t always schedule everything to a T. If my child has a meltdown or an accident that requires a bath, we’re out of luck. We won’t make the designated hours.”

The importance of play
“Recreation should be inclusive and affordable to everyone, and it isn’t always both,” said Morina. The need for non-clinical, therapeutic play and recreation is a vital developmental need. Academic and socializing skills are embedded in play – the recognition of colors and sequencing concepts, the recognition of social cues such as when to share and how to regulate emotional responses.

“Play is underappreciated as an essential tool in which learning can be embedded,” DeCourcy said. “The way we structure learning in the educational system doesn’t suit little bodies that can’t sit still.”

Arts programming can also address the need to play in accessible ways.

“For us the most enjoyable form of play is writing via art forms such as poetry. Artistic writing allows us to play with our senses and transform our thoughts and emotions,” said Meghana Junnuru, a blogger at Grow Our Joy and student at Unrestricted Interest, a writing program dedicated to helping unconventional learners transform their lives through writing.

“There is a very big lack of entertainment for those with autism,” Junnuru said. “Build more centers across the Twin Cities or even outside of Minneapolis.”

There are many challenges for children with disabilities to play in traditional environments, however.

“A lot of the time, play places can be pretty weird for Zahavi,” Saxon said. “There are kids who come languagelessly to agreements of what do in a space, but that’s not how Zahavi communicates. Most times, his playmates are other adults.”

DeCourcy emphasized that the need to “generalize” skills via play and social situations is a vital need to be addressed for folks on the spectrum.

“In creating a space that is embracing, accepting and inclusive of people on the spectrum, you’re giving people the opportunity to be successful in a typical environment. Many autistic adults have stories of having ‘failed’ in public, and this can even result in the police being called.”

Spaces beyond the clinical
Tony’s Place also aims to cultivate a community where families and parents can come together to share their stories, experiences, struggles and joys outside of a clinical setting.

“We are going to create a place where Tony can meet friends, where I can meet friends, a place where we can identify common obstacles and find solutions to overcome them,” Morina said.

“There’s terms I’ve come to through parent folklore rather than through diagnosis to navigate our experience,” Saxon said. “For example, a term I came up with that resonated with other parents is the term ‘terraforming,’ a way we can understand the way that kids on the spectrum change an environment to change their needs.”

Saxon mentions Choo-Choo Bob’s Train Store in St. Paul as a space where their child can move train tracks around in ways he finds enjoyable, and not prescribed by any rules or expectations.

“When you’re creating a space for individuals with autism, there is no one-size-fits-all answer,” said Chris Martin, local poet and founder of Unrestricted Interest. “You have to create structures and environments that are tailored to fit all these magnificently different people.”

“A tool or toy can be used in different ways allows for genuine engagement,” Martin continued. “Don’t be programmatic or restrictive on how these tools should be used. Make the tools available without feeling too wedded to your own idea of when and how they should be used.”

Matt Guidy, co-founder of Upstream Arts, an organization that uses art to activate and amplify the voice of folks with disabilities, stresses the importance of inclusive classrooms.

“We design curriculum that everyone can access no matter what kind of learner they are,” Guidy said. “Our philosophy is that if visual tools are useful for learners who are autistic, then they are useful for all learners.”

These guiding principles are seen in action at Tony’s Place. Morina, who is also a classical harpist, has a harp on-site that she used to lull Tony to sleep. And she doesn’t discourage children from touching the instrument. A toddler with a handful of toy cars and a bandana fashioned around his neck is invited to strum himself. Earlier, lying down in the quiet area, he played with how a string of fiber optic lights could reflect off of the toy cars.

Morina emphasizes that Tony’s Place is a community where everyone is encouraged to come play, regardless of ability or diagnosis status, hoping to foster compassion and understanding of children with disabilities among those who aren’t familiar.

“To me, a truly inclusive environment contains no ‘us’ and ‘them,’” Morina said. “Inclusion is ‘we’ – we have a common goal and if we unite with a common purpose to be a little more understanding of kids with autism and other abilities, I think that could make us a more thoughtful society.”