Children’s museum reaches out with Autism Family Night exhibit

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The Discovery Gateway children’s museum located in Salt Lake City. (Courtesy of Discovery Gateway children’s museum)

Discovery Gateway children’s museum hosted its Autism Family Night exhibit on Jan. 14 in Salt Lake City.

The museum, which receives a quarter million visitors a year, has focused on meeting specific autism needs in Utah, where autism disorders are about double the national average.

Kirsta Albert, the development and external relations director for Discovery Gateway, said this was an opportunity for the museum to tell people about autism and “to share the sensitivity and the compassion towards those who have autism diagnosis.”

The museum opened exclusively for autistic children of all ages and their families to attend. Siblings of autistic children were also encouraged to come and participate.

According to Albert, 60,000 square feet of the building is filled with hands-on exhibits for children to help them imagine what it would be like to be a nurse, construction worker or even a helicopter pilot.

There are different activity zones where kids can work in a supermarket or even sit in front of a newscaster green screen. All of the exhibits focus on teaching subjects such as math, science or technology and on helping children discover what they can become.

Albert said it can be very challenging for parents to bring their autistic children to public places because they can often be unpredictable. “In this instance it doesn’t matter. It’s wide open for everyone — for every ability, for every level of autism or for their families to come and feel comfortable and accepted,” Albert said.

Jennie Gibson, associate director of the Utah Parents Center in Salt Lake City, said that just having a place to go and have fun can be hard for autism families to find. Gibson said families with autistic children sometimes feel very alone so a museum exhibit can be really good for these children. “Even if they just enjoy it, it’s helpful,” Gibson said.

“I think anytime we have an opportunity for our children to go out in the community is good,” said Carol Walker, public relations director of Clear Horizons Academy in Orem, a school for autistic children. Walker mentioned that some of their older students go on field trips every week to places such as aquariums or stores to help them learn to deal with the outside community.

Admission to the Autism Family Night exhibit was $5 a ticket, and additional information can be found at http://www.childmuseum.org/.

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