Cathy Blatnik felt isolated, like a prisoner in her home, after her youngest son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and epilepsy before he turned three.
A bright or flashing light, a loud noise, any unexpected turn of events of the day could trigger an outburst, and then a life-threatening seizure.
Going to the movies as a family? That was not an option.
Heading to a ballpark for a game? Couldn’t do that, too many external stimuli existed.
How about a visit to a museum? Again, the unknown lurked around every corner.
“It was very lonely. We did absolutely nothing,” said Blatnik, of Okemos. “We couldn’t even take him to the grocery store because it was so exhausting.”
Today, the options for the Blatnik family and others living with sensory issues have opened up. The Lansing region has embraced and become a statewide leader as a sensory-friendly center for people with autism and other disabilities.
In less than two years, Lansing has transformed into what Blatnik calls the “most sensory-friendly city in Michigan.” Leaders at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, the Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Mid Michigan Autism Association have trained more than 1000 people across regional attractions, restaurants and hotels on how to create supportive and welcoming environments.
April’s designation as Autism Awareness Month serves as a point of pride for those who have taken the lead on meeting the needs of neuro-diverse guests. “The collaboration between private and public entities has created a jammed calendar of sensory-friendly events for the month and the rest of the year,” said Julie Pingston, executive vice president of the visitors bureau.
Here is a sampling of experiences from 2019, available to families with a member on the autism spectrum, or with developmental disabilities, sensory processing disorder, and other conditions:
- Sensory Friendly Show of Dumbo at both NCG Cinema or Celebration Cinema
- Autism Friendly event at Jumpin’ Jax hosted by Comprehensive Early Autism Services
- Sensory-Friendly evening hours at Impression 5 Science Center
- Sensory-Friendly show at Abrams Planetarium
- FALCONERS program at Potter Park Zoo
- Junie B. Jones at Wharton Center for Performing Arts
The Lansing region has a full calendar of neuro-sensitive events for April 2020 and beyond, found by clicking here, and the area was recently recognized with the Governor’s Award for Innovative Tourism Collaboration at the 2019 Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism.
“No one put this on a to-do list, but it has become a cornerstone of our community to make all of our attractions sensory-friendly,” said Pingston. “We want to elevate our community so that there’s more awareness, more understanding and more ability to serve and welcome families.
“Our message is that Lansing is open to you and we will continue to work to make this the best experience visitors to our community can have.”
Blatnik said her advocacy began with her family – Dominic is now 14 – and continues because she doesn’t want others to go through what she did when her son was young. Studies show 1 in every 59 children are diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
“The satisfaction comes from seeing a family smile, from seeing the relief on their faces that they can live and that people care about them,” she said. “Recently, a family was looking for help after their 2-year-old was diagnosed with autism. They were looking for resources, and I was able to hand them a whole book of things to do and where to go.
“That didn’t exist when we were starting out. We didn’t want to keep Dominic in a bubble, but at the same time, we had to know what we’re walking into and what the risk was. It was and still is really a matter of his health and his life.”
Laura Zeller, the director of communications for Impression 5 Science Center, said the facility has worked with experts from Michigan State University and the autism association to conduct two audits to understand how to be a more welcoming venue.
Changes have included developing a special sensory-friendly night once per month and implementing tools to help prepare families for a visit during regular hours. There are social stories, which vividly describe and guide guests around the museum before their visit, as well as new signage indicating potential sensitivities at exhibits. The center has also created sensory backpacks equipped with fidget spinners, headphones and other methods of assisting neuro-diverse families through the hands-on experience.
“We want people to feel that we are open and accessible,” Zeller said. “What we’ve seen from families is just a huge sense of gratitude and appreciation. They just want to be able to participate and have an entertainment and learning option that is welcoming.“Families can be themselves and be comfortable here and across Lansing now, and we think that’s a great feeling to provide as a community.”
Pingston agrees: “There’s nothing better than doing something that helps others,” she said.