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Autistic children find a welcome at ‘Makes Sense’ store

Emmaly Gucinski isn’t your typical shopper.

She feels most comfortable when she can pick up every product on every shelf, touch it, maybe even take it out of the box.

Emmaly, 10, has found herself at home during the last year at a store that specializes in selling items for children and adults with autism and other special needs.

“She kind of owns the store when she’s here,” said her mother, Alyson. “All of the kids come out of their shells in here.”

Makes Sense closed in Alden last month because owner Stacey Creighton wanted to reach a larger audience. She will reopen Super Bowl Sunday in a gray clapboard storefront across from Starbucks at 5428 Main St. in Williamsville.

Emmaly couldn’t wait that long. She and her family visited the store last week to see how things were going with the move.

She wouldn’t take off her coat as she poked around amid the puppets, puzzles and workbooks, but did take off her boots – exposing her Princess Anna socks – before trying out four swings and the ball pit in the back “sensory room.” Creighton also let her little customer use her computer to watch One Direction sing “You’re Beautiful.”

Emmaly cupped her hands on her cheeks and cast wide smiles during part of visit. She also pitched a couple of fits that would have turned heads in a restaurant or typical department store.

No big deal here.

“Nothing fazes me,” said Creighton, 33, who with her husband, Kevin, an Alden optician, has five children, including two with special needs.

The shop has become more a mission than a business for Creighton since it opened in September 2012.

Alyson and Peter Gucinski, of Darien, see Makes Sense more as a haven than a boutique.

“Just being a mom to an autistic child, it is so challenging,” said Alyson Gucinski. “Sometimes, it’s like, ‘Emmaly, we’re going to the store because I can’t handle you right now. You can go do what you need to do and I’m going to talk to Stacey.’ ”

The store sells products that add a sensory edge to help calm their customers. The biggest sellers: weighted blankets that run from 4 to 42 pounds and give those with autism a better sense of place, and of self. Similar items include fiber-optic strands, seat cushions with short, cushy spikes, and chews, putties and essential oils.

Sensory room accessories includes four swings, circular mirrors and a bubble tube. Children can frolic and settle down here while their parents compare notes with Creighton about the best ways to make the most of the lives of their children – as well as their own. Creighton’s son, Arlo, 7, also has autism.

Support groups for parents, siblings and caregivers – led by occupational therapists and others – are offered upstairs. Creighton also plans to encourage parents to go grab a cup of coffee and some quiet time in other shops nearby while she keeps an eye on their kids.

“Just because people with autism think and act differently – and some may not talk – their potential is still there if we would just pull it out a little bit at a time,” Creighton said.

Veronica Federiconi, executive director of Autism Services, said Makes Sense has been a godsend to families who work with the nonprofit agency.

“I’ve had very positive feedback,” Federiconi said. “We do see very positive results when children are given an environment or manipulatives that help them to cope with stressful situations.”

Creighton said she knows of only two other similar stores: one in California, the other in Colorado. Elsewhere, those with family members who have special needs are forced to order specialty items online – amid the isolation of their own homes – wait several weeks for delivery, and hope they don’t have to deal with the hassle of sending back things like customized blankets and fiber-optics that might cost $300.

The first reaction of many customers?

“We get a lot of crying,” Creighton said. “I cry a lot. I get hugged a lot. They are so overjoyed that there is a place they can go to now. After an autism diagnosis, you’re so alone. You’re left with no outlet. You don’t know what to do as far as products go.”

Creighton understands those feelings – and has learned that she and her family are far from alone.

The number of children diagnosed with autism has climbed dramatically in recent years, to one in 68, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism is five times more common in boys than girls. Many in the medical community believe that better testing methods and a greater understanding of the condition have led to much of that increase.

“When you say ‘autism,’ many people think of Rain Man: not very verbal but very, very smart,” said Creighton. “That’s maybe 2 percent of autism.”

The diagnosis covers a range of symptoms, from mild to severe. They may or may not include intellectual challenges and an inability to speak, though repetitive movements and at times anti-social behavior are among its hallmarks. Many children with autism are challenged interacting with others. Children will take toys, color coordinate and keep playthings in specific order. They often do not like to be touched. Tantrums can be common. They often develop a dramatic fascination with one or two subjects. For Creighton’s son, it’s sharks and the solar system.

She has chosen to embrace Arlo’s differences, his personality.

“Nobody sees him like I see him,” Creighton said. “I know what he’s capable of. Other people don’t get that. They just see the bad him, so it’s my journey to hold his hand, make sure everything’s OK.”

That journey has led to Williamsville. She hopes others on a similar track will stop by the store, check out her website at makessenseproducts.com, or call 902-5025.

“At least here, if they’re having a meltdown, it’s OK,” Creighton said. “If we want to throw balls, let’s throw balls. That’s the whole concept behind it. It’s OK for them to be themselves here. … I want them to use things. I don’t want them to be ashamed. If they’re hitting the wall, it’s OK. They’re doing it for a reason. They can come here and not be judged.”

That includes shoplifting. More than one embarrassed parent has come back from the parking lot to return an item that someone stuffed into a pocket.

“I’m OK with that, too,” Creighton said.

Despite the chaos, Crieghton’s mother, Marcia Hake, calls the shop “a calming place” for those with autism.

“If it’s a mess” after a busy day, she said, “we’re doing our job.”

email: sscanlon@buffnews.com