Seattle Museum Turns Down the Lights for Kids with Sensory Issues

In general in disability journalism, I’d like to see us emphasize needed accommodations over diagnoses. In other words, what do people with disabilities need over what they “have.”

Here’s an example. I titled this blog post “for kids with sensory issues,” but I’m referring to a piece actually called “Museum Opens Doors, Turns Down Lights For Autistic Kids.” It’s a lovely story from NPR about a Seattle museum working to be less overstimulating so kids on the spectrum can enjoy it:

Loud noises, bright lights, crowded spaces: This is exactly the situation Mike Hiner tries to avoid with his 20-year-old son Steven, who is autistic.
He’s one of the many children and young adults in the Northwest who have some form of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD: In the Seattle School District, 10 percent of the special education population has ASD, and in nearby Bellevue, that figure is 17 percent. And because overstimulation can be painful for children with autism, many parents with autistic children avoid crowded, sensation-filled situations altogether — which can mean missing out on fun outings.
Steven Hiner, with his sister Elizabeth and his mother Carol Hiner, visited the Pacific Science Center before regular hours, so Steven could enjoy the exhibits without the crowds or bright lights.Jennifer Wing/KPLU
But some museums, including the Pacific Science Center, are recognizing the problem, and toning down the sights and sounds. One Saturday each month, the museum opens up early for families with ASD — like the Hiners, here before official hours begin.

This is great. Public spaces have really improved in terms of universal design, but sensory issues can be so tricky. The exact kind of noise and light and excitement that make a place better for many children can bar others from participating. So a special morning like this is a good thing.

I also liked this tidbit from the article.

Other museums and organizations across the country have similar programs, from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to the Dallas Museum of Art. Even NASCAR holds events where autistic children go to the track to watch a live race from a quiet room.

Again, I’m for all of this.

But I’d like to contrast the rhetoric to the Sunday-morning “Everyone at Play” at the Kohl’s Children’s Museum.

My son doesn’t have autism, but has similar sensory issues. So do many children I know with Down syndrome and plenty of others with various kinds of sensory processing disorders. I’m concerned with the emphasis on autism in the journalism here and in some of the advertising for these programs (even though I’m sure many of the museums are not in fact exclusive to autism only).

Instead of emphasizing a diagnosis (autism), I’d like to see us emphasize accommodations (the need for lower sensory stimulation). That way any child who needs this accommodation (and his or her parents) feel welcome, regardless.

And I think this is a general rule that journalists and institutions would do well to follow: Focus on the need, not the diagnosis.

One Reply to “Seattle Museum Turns Down the Lights for Kids with Sensory Issues”

  1. Two Mamas says:

    AMC Theaters did (or does?) have Saturday morning movies with lower sound, a little more lighting, and an understanding that kids may be loud or not stay in their seats (more than in a typical movie). It was supposedly for special needs, but was mostly filled with typical kids and families. The atmosphere was just super relaxed. Leads me to wonder if we are overestimating the "difference" part a bit when all kids seemed to benefit from the less intense environment. All kids can benefit by making some of these places more inclusive.

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