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Fun for everyone: Activities tailored to special needs

As awareness grows around the need for inclusion, more and more places are offering activities and events that are tailored for those with special needs.

Whether it’s an inclusive playground, special day at a museum or sensory-friendly movie screening, the Buffalo region boasts a lot of fun things to do so everyone, regardless of ability, can enjoy the same experiences.

“The special needs community in Buffalo is a tight-knit group,” said Lauren Savino, the access and inclusion specialist at Explore & More Children’s Museum.

Savino, who was previously a special education teacher and has a child with special needs, understands the need for such accessibility, and said the museum is dedicated to creating an environment where world-class play experiences are available to all children.

More initiatives are planned to continue that mission at the museum, which moved to its new Canalside home this spring, including “quiet kits,” which contain items to help children with sensory needs, such as noise-canceling headphones. The museum also provides lots of visual support, and there’s even a therapeutic space with ways to help children calm and focus themselves.

“A child with special needs might need more direction to be able to engage in that space,” Savino said. “This will help to reduce anxiety, and research has shown that’s really important.”

Savino said all the museum’s programs and offerings will be made accessible to diverse learners, whether it’s a new program or an existing one, like the Au-some Evenings, which are free monthly events dedicated to children on the autism spectrum and their friends and families.

“It’s really an opportunity for kids who have autism to come to the museum when it’s closed to the public, and they can engage in a space and not be overwhelmed with crowds and volume,” Savino said.

Savino said the museum’s goal is to support families, not just the children who are diverse learners or have special needs.

“We’re going to be training everyone, all the full-time and part-time staff and volunteers, on how to be a fully inclusive environment, from everything from the language we’re using to what do we do if something comes up,” she said. “We know when caregivers are doing well, happy and supported, the children really thrive.”

The new Explore & More Children’s Museum is, of course, fully accessible to those with physical disabilities and is one of the only places in Western New York that has an adult size changing table.

“We want to make sure everyone feels welcome here,” Savino said.

Play spaces, indoor and out

Jessica Sills, a speech-language pathologist, and her husband, Jeff Sills, a physical education teacher, own both locations of the We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym in Williamsville and Derby. The gym is a sensory-based facility where the equipment is therapeutic in nature for kids of all ages and abilities.

“The kids can play, learn and have fun, and grow at the same time by developing developmental skills they need to be successful,” Sills said.

“We’re welcoming children with a variety of abilities to come and socialize together. Parents of children with special needs feel safe when they come here. They can let their child be who they need to be and they’ll be accepted and others will be understanding.”

The gym has a train table, chalk board and magnetic wall, puppet theater, calming room, zip line, rope wall, spring-free trampoline, monkey bars, and much more.

Another option for indoor play can be found at Sky Zone, where they host Sensory Sundays so families with sensory challenges can jump and have fun together in a relaxed and supportive environment.

Sensory Sundays are held from 9 to 11 a.m. Sundays at the Buffalo location, 425 Cayuga Road, Cheektowaga. The cost is $10 per jumper or $25 for a family of four.

Finding an inclusive place to play outdoors can be a little more challenging, as Jason Evchich knows all too well.

Evchich’s two sons, Mason and Matthew, who were born in 2013 and 2014, respectively, are both afflicted with a still undiagnosed form of Hypomyelinating Leukodystrophy. Mason and Matthew can’t walk, talk, crawl—or most importantly for their age—play outside, not even with their older sister McKenna. That’s how the Mason’s Mission Foundation began just over two years ago.

“We’ve collaborated with different organizations and towns to raise almost $1.5 million for three playgrounds,” Evchich said. “It’s been a whirlwind for us.”

Currently, Mason’s Mission has a playground at Pendleton Park in Lockport, and two more are in the works to open in Tonawanda and Lewiston. The hope is to open even more as time goes on, as Evchich said Mason’s Mission Foundation is helping fulfill a “starving need” for awareness.

“Building the playground is the easy part,” he said. “The hard part is creating inclusive lifestyles through play and interaction. It’s so important for them to interact together with their siblings or friends. My sons can’t play with everything at the playground, but they can interact with everyone at everything at the playground.”

Other playgrounds in the area that offer accessibility options include Billy Wilson Park in Williamsville and the Hamburg Community Playground in Hamburg.

Special screenings

Going to the movies is a beloved pastime, but special needs families often face challenges in that area. Some movie theaters have responded to this need by offering sensory-friendly showings. Locally, Flix Stadium 10 on Transit Road in Lancaster has a Sensory Friendly Family Film Series, which is held at 10 a.m. the first Saturday of every month.

During the movies, the theater lights remain on and the sound is lowered. Upcoming movies in the series include “Aladdin” on June 1, “Toy Story 4” on July 6, and “The Lion King” on Aug. 3. Admission is $7.75 per person for both children and adults.

A similar program takes place at the Regal Niagara Falls movie theater, called Regal’s My Way Matinee, which gives everyone the opportunity to experience a movie with the lights on and volume lowered, thus creating a safe space where guests are “free to express themselves by singing, crying, dancing, walking around, talking or shouting while enjoying Hollywood’s latest films.” b

The Regal Niagara Falls My Way Matinee is held at 10:30 a.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month for a discounted price. For upcoming shows, check out the Regal website.

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