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Lynchburg, VA: Amazement Center is "Certified Autism Center"

Aug 8, 2023, Cardinal News, Roanoke, VA: With autism certification, Lynchburg’s Amazement Square seeks to be more inclusive

The hands-on museum has taken steps to make things easier for families dealing with neurodivergent diagnoses. It offers quiet spaces, sensory-friendly toys and a staff trained in autism awareness.

Conor McLaughlin was having a hard time with impulse control on the day he and his mother visited Amazement Square, the hands-on children’s museum in Lynchburg.

Conor, who’s 6, tends to hyperfocus on things, said his mother, Anna McLaughlin. He needs verbal countdowns to prepare for shifts in his day. He wears headphones to offset loud noises that might overwhelm him.

Conor is one of the many children who have been given a neurodivergent diagnosis — in his case, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder — and for whom visiting a museum can be a difficult experience.

But Amazement Square, which recently was designated a Certified Autism Center, has taken steps to make things easier for families like the McLaughlins.

The museum has created quiet places for families to unwind. Visitors are offered tote bags filled with sensory-friendly toys to help overwhelmed children calm themselves. More than three-quarters of the museum’s staff has been trained in how to serve people with autism.

Even the museum’s website has been updated with pictorial guides to prepare families for a visit, as children with neurodivergent diagnoses often benefit from knowing what to expect in an unfamiliar place.

For families who have been handed a neurodivergent diagnosis, this is huge. … Surveillance cameras are aimed at each level of the climbing tower so employees can quickly find children who might become disoriented.

Employees also watch the front door to make sure children do not wander outside without their caregivers, Horstemeyer said. That’s only one of the concerns that families might have when it comes to visiting such an expansive museum with their young children.

The concerns can be compounded when a child has been diagnosed with autism or other neurodivergent disorders.

“The children can get overstimulated from being around lots of people,” said Blake Bryant, founder of the nonprofit Puzzled Events in Lynchburg who has lived with autism for nearly 50 years.

He has been a key partner in helping the museum’s community advisory committee understand the needs of children and parents who have autism diagnoses. The committee, which the museum created two years ago, includes health professionals, educators, parents with autistic children, and adults with autism.


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