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.
Conor’s therapist helped prepare him for the trip to the museum by discussing the things he would see in advance, McLaughlin said.
At first, Conor wanted to play exclusively in the museum’s climbing tower. After signing in and taking a set of headphones from one of the museum’s Distract Pack tote bags, Conor dashed over to the tower’s entry-level ladder.
“Are you going to come back? I don’t know where you’re going,” McLaughlin said as Conor began climbing down the child-sized ladder.
The expansive, five-story play tower features long slides, climbing tubes, dark tunnels and even a zipline. It made McLaughlin nervous — she couldn’t keep her eyes on Conor at all times when he was in the tower. But the Amazement Square employees are always on the lookout, according to front desk employee Nicole Horstemeyer.
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.
The goal was to create a more sensory-friendly museum, said Amazement Square Vice President Morgan Kreutz.
Ultimately, the committee sought the designation as a Certified Autism Center in order to better learn how to serve individuals in the autism community. The designation, which is granted by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, requires commitment to a number of initiatives, including ongoing training and an on-site certification visit, according to Jennifer Evans, Amazement Square’s director of experiential learning. The designation must be renewed every two years, she said.
Amazement Square received its certification in April and was the first museum in Virginia to do so, according to the IBCCES.
To be designated as a Certified Autism Center, 80% of museum staff must be trained in best practices for interacting with people with autism. Amazement Square’s focus has been to train most of the floor employees who encounter the public on a given day, as well as those employees who provide educational programming through camps or other endeavors, according to Evans.
Evans has worked for Amazement Square off and on since 2012. Her background is in informal education, which includes museum-based education. She is one of three Amazement Square employees who have received the highest level of autism awareness training, she said.
There are different levels of training according to how involved a staff member is in interacting with the public, Evans said.
The training costs $50 to $300 per team member, based on the level of training, according to Kreutz. Museum educators can receive anywhere from a couple of hours of training up to the 40 hours that Evans received, Evans said.
Evans is in charge of the programming for the museum’s Everyone is Special nights, which began in fall 2021 and occur on a frequent basis. On those nights, the museum closes to the public while welcoming in people whose families have encountered an autism diagnosis, whether for a parent or child.
The Everyone is Special nights give the families a chance to explore the museum with a few more modifications than on a typical day.
The museum provides extra sets of headphones in noisy spaces, Evans said. It also tries to provide special programming such as experiences related to the senses, mathematics or coding, crafting stations and creative expression, according to Evans.
The program takes place over the course of several hours, so families can visit and explore as they please, Evans said. “I want everyone to have a choice, to know that they can try something new or not and that’s OK. It is a learning process,” Evans said.
The next Everyone is Special night will take place in September. Interested families should contact the museum for details, Kreutz said.
Evans also plans four weeklong school outreach programs for classes of students with autism. The museum has been providing these outreach programs for the past 15 years, she said. Many of the in-school programs revolve around STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — activities. The elementary-based outreach programs are provided for free to Bedford County and Lynchburg schools, Evans said. The educators might provide programming related to inventing, robotics or coding. They will often end the series with a mobile planetarium presentation.
Evans understands that the planetarium can be scary for some students. She prepares the children before they enter the large, bounce-house-like bubble. “It’s dark in there and there’s wind. I try to explain what they will see and what they will feel as much as I can,” she said.
That empathy and caring reverberates across the museum as well. Museum educators are trained to identify children and their parents who may be overstimulated and might need to take a quiet break away from the activity. That’s where the Distract Packs and quiet areas come into play, according to Kreutz.
A visit to Amazement Square can be fun for the entire family, according to Bryant, who has visited the museum with his children and grandchildren. “It’s about learning, but also about playing with your children and having fun at the same time,” he said.
“We want to encourage parents to interact and be involved with their kids,” Horstemeyer said.
One of the best parts of the job is seeing the visiting children grow up year after year, according to longtime museum employee Joshua Poindexter. He remembers one grandmother who would bring her grandchildren to the museum early in his career. The children remembered him from one summer to the next, he said. They ran up to Poindexter to give him a hug and he picked them up to spin them around. The grandmother caught up with him a moment later.
“She told me that their parents had back problems and were never able to lift their kids up. So that was special for them,” he recalled. That moment changed the way Poindexter viewed his career.
“You never know what impact you’re going to have on the guests here,” Poindexter said.