CATERING TO SPECIAL NEEDS
Local Businesses Offer Programs for Children with Challenges
March 19, 2017
Pixie Dust, a children’s event venue in Bay Shore, offers
sensory-friendly parties, events and open play times — sessions in
which children play with an assortment of colored bins full of
“kinetic sand,” uncooked oatmeal and water beads.
Trampoline Sports, in Syosset, offers Sensational Kids, a weekly
open play session where children with autism, their parents,
siblings and friends jump on trampolines the size of racquetball
courts and launch themselves into pits of small, colored foam
Theater Three, a performing arts center in Port
Jefferson, holds sensory-friendly performances where house lights
remain on, sound levels are lower, there is no intermission, patrons
can freely move around the auditorium, and clean blankets and
stuffed animals are in the lobby should a child need a break.
Rising numbers of businesses on Long Island are making their
offerings more accessible and comfortable for children with autism
and sensory sensitivities.
National chains such as AMC
Theatres and Toys R Us have also launched initiatives that cater to
the families of children with sensory sensitivities. Chuck E.
Cheese’s tested its Sensory Sensitive Sundays concept on Long Island
and plans to roll it out nationally on World Autism Awareness Day,
Sensory sensitivity occurs when a person has
difficulty processing everyday sensory information, according to the
National Autistic Society, a U.K. advocacy and charity organization.
Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both at
different times, and can result in sensory overload, which leads to
stress, anxiety and physical pain.
At least three quarters of
children on the autism spectrum display significant sensory
processing symptoms, estimates the Sensory Therapies and Research
Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit. However, other disorders,
such as Sensory Processing Disorder, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity
Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, cause sensory
sensitivities in children.
Business owners sometimes have
children with disabilities in their own lives. But there are also
strong business reasons for reaching out to families with these
children, such as attracting the loyalty of a growing demographic,
staying competitive and being recognized as socially responsible.
“Some of the behaviors displayed by children on the spectrum
make it really difficult for their parents to enjoy going out into
the community,” said Dianne Porter, a board-certified behavior
analyst who has worked with special-needs families for almost 30
years. Porter owns Holbrook-based Missing Piece Awareness Inc., a
company that trains businesses in autism awareness and acceptance.
“Sometimes business owners ask parents to leave when their child
is having a meltdown,” Porter said. The parents become distraught,
and the company loses a sale and a customer.
“There are small
modifications businesses can make to be more accommodating to people
with special needs,” Porter said. “There’s a bigger picture we need
to look at, people with autism are not going away,” she said.
In 2014 the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities
Monitoring Network estimated autism occurred in about 1 in 68
children. That estimate has risen steadily: In 2007 the network
reported that about 1 in 150 children had autism spectrum disorder.
New York State reported that during the 2012-13 school year,
26,964 children 3 to 21 years old who received special education
services had autism. The data are the most recent available;
information for Long Island is not available.
Birthdays in Bay Shore
At Pixie Dust, which opened
in June, one third of the parties it hosts are for special-needs
children, including children with autism and different disabilities.
Raquel Noriega, who worked in commercial real estate management
for 20 years, decided to buy a children’s party venue because of her
experience with her daughter, Ava, now 3, who was diagnosed with
autism at 15 months.
Autism spectrum disorder is a
developmental disability that can cause significant social,
communication and behavioral challenges, the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention says. Some symptoms include having trouble
communicating using typical words or gestures, having trouble
adapting to changes in routines, and having unusual reactions to the
way things smell, taste, look, feel or sound, among others.
“From a mom’s point of view, there aren’t many places children with
special needs can go,” Noriega said. “So I decided to create one.”
During sensory play time, children with sensory sensitivities
often enjoy running their fingers through the textured materials she
provides and touching the items in each bin. It provides a soothing
effect for some kids, Noriega said.
Noriega, whose staff was
trained by Missing Piece Awareness Inc., tailors each party to the
“We can adjust and accommodate to whatever needs the
child has,” she said. “We can limit the lighting, the music,
anything at all that might be a trigger.”
“I had a child
come in that had a fear of feathers, so I removed anything and
everything in the room with feathers. For others it might be a
particular color that triggers them.”
Noriega said she books
four to eight parties a week, on average, costing $385 for a package
for 12 children.
She’s had “hundreds of requests” to
franchise, she said, but is not ready to take that step. “The demand
is there,” she said
Bouncing for Business
Bounce! offers its Sensational Kids events on Mondays
from 5 to 7 p.m. in its 52,000 square-foot space. It offers the
events exclusively for families and friends of children with autism.
It costs $12 per hour for children to bounce; parents and caretakers
jump for free.
On average, about 60 people attend.
an event in March, Matthew Kalmenson, of Kings Park, bounces on a
trampoline alongside his 13-year-old son, Jake, whose midair smile
is so big you can almost see all of his teeth.
Jake, who has
autism and is nonverbal, is not interested in many things, said his
mother, Shannon Kalmenson, who was a few feet away on the sidelines.
“He doesn’t really play games, and since he can’t speak to
express, I like bringing him here because I can tell he’s happy,”
“If more businesses had events or special nights
like this one and were so welcoming and made us feel comfortable, we
Bounce! manager Rachel Fain said, “We had an
overwhelming amount of requests from parents to do something like
Staff members at Bounce! received a three-hour autism
sensitivity training session from Debora Thivierge, founder of the
Elija School, a private school for children with autism, in
Employees learn to differentiate between children
who have autism and those with other disorders such as Down syndrome
so that they’re better equipped to serve children who come to the
business. They learn the range of behaviors autistic children may
display when they feel overly sensitive to sound, light, large
crowds or sudden changes in temperature.
“I really try to get
to know the staff and the business so I can help them modify their
environment,” Thivierge said.
She found that Bounce!
employees were worried about children having “full-blown outbursts,”
so she helped them draft a protocol of what to do.
need to be calm,” she said.
Her suggestions: “Create a plan.
Try to block the child, create a physical barrier so that no one is
able to stare at them, and tell the families in the vicinity to
please leave the area. Do not ask the parent if their child has a
disability, instead just ask, ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
Sensitivity training classes by Thivierge usually range
from $500 to $1,000 per session. She has done about five in the last
couple of months, she said.
Reaching for the Sky
Sky Zone, in Mount Sinai and Deer Park, hosts Sky Zone Cares
events once a month for “adults and children with any and all
special needs.” The events are geared to children with sensory
sensitivities: The lights are dimmed, staff is increased and
capacity is limited.
The business’ employees were trained by
Porter of Missing Piece Awareness, which charges $850 to train up to
Porter requires employees to participate in a
range of hands-on activities and games.
“What we’re trying to
do is give employees a sense of what it feels like to be autistic,”
Porter said. “Each employee must take a test and pass it in order to
receive a training certificate.”
Anthony Grassa, manager of
the 26,000-square-foot Sky Zone in Mount Sinai, said the company has
held about six training sessions.
“I’d say about 70 percent
of our staff has gone through at least one,” he said.
helped the company develop a “social story,” which is a picture
booklet that shows what a child can expect at a Sky Zone facility
and some of the rules, Grassa said.
And Porter has become a
liaison between the business and the autism community.
people find out about our event through word-of-mouth, or they’ll
share information about it with each other on Facebook,” Grassa
said. He estimated up to 70 people attend events, on average.
Kristen Guetter, of Sound Beach, attended a Sky Zone Cares event
with her 5-year-old son, Liam, who is on the autism spectrum, for
the first time in February, after attending regular Sky Zone
“It was a completely different
experience,” she said. “I can’t even put it into words how amazing
it feels knowing that businesses are starting to offer these types
of events for our son.”
“We felt so comfortable and free, and
Liam had so much fun hanging out in the foam pit.”
one of the challenges of visiting public places is fending off
unwanted attention from people who don’t understand why her “son
makes certain noises.”
“But at an event like this, it’s a
judgment-free zone,” she said.
Plays in Port
Theater Three began offering $10-a-ticket
sensory sensitivity-friendly performances as part of its children’s
theater program in October.
“We felt the community of
children with autism was not being served particularly well,” said
Jeffrey Sanzel, who has been the artistic director of Theater Three
for 26 years.
Parents can review a social story with their
children ahead of time to prepare them for the performance.
Sanzel says the theater has held three sensory-friendly performances
for about 80 to 130 people in each.
“But even having 30 in
the crowd would be OK,” he said. “What’s important is that the
service is there and available.”
Two other theaters that
offer such performances are the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre in Oakdale and
the Long Island Children’s Museum in Garden City.
Clark, 27, who is autistic, attended a show last year at Theater
Three with his mother, Lisa Clark, of Mount Sinai.
musicals and plays too, and when we go watch a movie or play, he’s
not able to contain his excitement,” Clark said. “He just gets so
happy that he usually stands up, claps or yells out in joy, and
there’s been times when the people in front of us at the theater
have told us to remove ourselves . . . It’s so nice to know that
we’re welcome, that it’s OK, that we’ll be accepted if something
were to happen, and we don’t have to stay home.”