Upper Canada Village has launched new programming for children with autism and their families, including quiet rooms, "toned down" performances from actors, and specially-trained staff members.
"Sensory Friendly Sunday Mornings" at the Morrisburg, Ont., village — which offers visitors a snapshot of life in the 1860s — will also include maps to point out areas with "sounds and smells" that could be upsetting to some children, such as the sawmill.
"The things our families … are experiencing here is sometimes a sensory overload … and a little jarring for our guys," said Rachel Marks, a community events co-ordinator with Autism Ontario.
"By creating the three quiet areas, and the chests with the fidget toys, and blankets and colouring, it provides an area for our kids who are feeling a little over stimulated, to take themselves out for a moment."
'Not even words for it as a mom'
The three quiet rooms are housed in the village's historical buildings, such as the chapel and a barn.
Cynthia Tomney brought her nine-year-old son Ethan Barton to the village to experience the new programming, along with Ethan's new service dog, Molly.
Ethan has autism and anxiety issues, and in the past Tomney said she felt "isolated" in her home because of the judgment she would feel when she took her son out.
"We never left the house … When we did go out, you know when I had to do groceries … and he would suffer a meltdown. We've heard every comment from parents [saying], 'Let me take your kid for a week, and I'll whip him into shape.'"
"The fact that we can come out … he can enjoy himself, I'm not being judged as a parent, and he is able to be himself without being judged … there's not even words for it as a mom."
Programming is permanent
Families who visit for the sensory-friendly programming will be given bracelets that signal to staff members who role-play to "tone down" their performances, according to Geoff Waycik, manager of historic sites for St. Lawrence Parks Commission.
"A good example is the school house mistress. If you walk in there with your hat on, she'll yell at you and tell you take your hat off. So we switched … to talk [about] the role, more than we do actually perform the role."
The "Sensory Friendly Mornings" will run each Sunday between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. for the rest of July and August.
Waycik said the quiet rooms are now a permanent part of the village.