Finding a sense of place: Museum program offers supportive playtime for children with autism

Elliott Nordberg, 4, plays with his father Josh and program volunteer Kendall Voget. - Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review
Elliott Nordberg, 4, plays with his father Josh and program volunteer Kendall Voget.
— image credit: Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review

Allister Hazelton, 2, pushed his toy horse around the museum in a shopping cart while dressed as a pirate.

He does not slow down, and if you are in his way you would be advised to move.


Other children, dressed more appropriately in white coats, played doctor in a hospital-themed room, while still more donned aprons to work the cash register in a grocery store room where they proceeded to charge way too much for plastic bananas.

“You let them [the kids] take the lead,” said Myleea Spencer of the excited playtime activities. “You have to go with what they need. It’s all about helping them access the museum in a way that works for them.”

Spencer, a board-certified behavior analyst with Magnolia Behavior Therapy, recently moved to Bainbridge Island from Chicago and has since been working monthly with the Kids Discovery Museum’s Sensory Sunday program.

“It’s a fantastic program,” she said. “It’s all about making this fun.”

The program, designed for children with autism and similar sensory processing disorders, works to make the museum and its hands-on learning exhibits more accessible while also ensuring a stimulating and positive social experience outside of the home, all under the guidance of professional therapists like Spencer and trained museum volunteers.

“We want this to be a very positive experience,” said KiDiMu spokeswoman Krzysztofa McDonough.

Sensory Sunday is offered on the fourth Sunday of every month from 10 to 11:30 a.m., before the museum opens to the general public. The quieter and less crowded atmosphere is critical to ensure that the children feel comfortable and enjoy the museum, something most of them would be unable to do amidst the chaos and noise of regular visitation.

“It’s the only way that we can come here,” said Lauren Nordberg, mother of two.

“They love it here,” she said of her children. “The people [staff] have our best interests in mind. I was able to connect with other parents who understand and who aren’t judging. It was a lot like coming home. Those things were almost as important as any therapy we could get.”

Nordberg’s son Elliott, 4, is a participant in the program who avidly looks forward to visiting the museum, which is referred to as “the play place” when at home.

“We’ve been here every month since we were diagnosed,” she said. “He wouldn’t look forward to it if it weren’t this calm, quieter experience.”

Both Lauren and  her husband Josh Nordberg agree that autism is an easily misunderstood disorder for those with no personal experience with it.

“Most people think that somehow the children want to be defiant or obsessive,” she said.

“It’s a complicated disorder,” Josh agreed. “I would say it’s misunderstood only because it’s so hard to understand. Every parent adapts to their own child’s needs.”

He also noted the added importance of the children having positive experiences outside of their own homes and meeting new people and the confidence that it builds.

“This has been a great place to have those positive interactions,” he said.

Melanie Smith, a longtime member of the Bainbridge group Island Autism Moms and Dads, agreed that meeting other parents and the relaxed atmosphere for the children was a critical part of the program’s success.

“It’s great to connect with those other parents,” she said. “When you have a child with a disability it can be very isolating. The kids have unconventional interests and social [interaction] issues. We have to be careful with the activities we do outside of the home. If my child has a meltdown, nobody is going to give me looks.”

The idea of a designated supported playtime is one that the island parents group hopes will be emulated elsewhere.

“Our hope is that other groups in our community will embrace this model,” Smith said. “Like a theater or maybe a pool.”

KiDiMu has already begun to expand its own Sensory program to include a special Parents Night Out event, designed to give parents a break while their children have a chance to explore the museum and interact with the trained staff members and therapists.

Sensory Kids Night at the Museum (aka Parents Night Out) is recommended for children ages 3 to 12 with autism or similar disorders. Parents enjoy a night out from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. The event is currently offered quarterly, with the next one slated for Saturday, Feb. 8. Visit the museum website below for additional dates and specific program requirements.

Registration is required and children must be able to use the bathroom unsupervised.

The mission of the museum is to provide a destination for children and their caregivers to explore art, science, and culture through hands-on exhibits, daily art projects, cultural and scientific programming.

For more information about KidiMu and all of their other programs and events, visit

To learn more about Island Autism Moms and Dads, visit

In addition to working with the museum on the Sensory program, Magnolia Behavior Therapy offers a wide variety of individualized services in support of the autism community.

Visit their website at for more details.


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