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Au-some program at the Aquarium of Niagara designed with autistic children in mind

NIAGARA FALLS – The Aquarium of Niagara offered Au-some at the Aquarium, its first sensory-friendly program for children with autism last month. Over 150 people took advantage of the monthly program in April and it will be offered again, from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Aquarium of Niagara, 701 Whirlpool St.

The first of its kind in Niagara County, the program was developed in partnership with Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo and occupational therapy students at D’Youville College. It was designed to offer a quieter and supportive environment for children with autism and their families.

The number of patrons admitted is limited and children are provided with noise-canceling headphones, time out zones, quiet places to work on sensory boards as well as a sensory-friendly sea lion show without music and flashing lights. Gluten-free snacks and art activities are also offered.

Ilene Strober, director of development and marketing at the Aquarium, said the idea is to allow children with autism a chance to enjoy a site that they may not be able to enjoy when there are crowds around.

“We want this to be a family experience,” said Strober. “It’s not fair that these children get excluded from everyday activities that we all take for granted.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong neurobehavioral disorder that impacts a child’s behavioral, social and communication skills. Current statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 1 in 68 children have ASD, including 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls. Autism is a spectrum that can vary in symptoms and severity from severe to high functioning.

Sensory challenges are common to about three quarters of people with autism and sometimes makes everyday sights, sounds and activities overwhelming.

“All Aquarium staff underwent training for the Au-some Program to improve their understanding of autism,” said Sarah Courtney, curator of education at the Aquarium of Niagara. Additionally, student volunteers from D’Youville College, SUNY Buffalo State, the University at Buffalo, Niagara University and Niagara County Community College will be on hand to assist families.

“This is very important,” Courtney said of the Au-some program. “It’s something the Aquarium has always wanted to do. We really want to open the door to the community and know that everybody can come in.”

In the past, some families that came to the Aquarium during the day had to leave because it was too loud or the lights were too bright for their children.

“I just wanted to make sure that everybody could enjoy the beauty of the Aquarium,” said Courtney.

Earlier this month the Aquarium hosted a special event for close to 50 kids, ages 2 to 5, from the Olmsted Center for Sight in Buffalo. The youngsters watched a seal show featuring the aquarium’s newest star, 25-year-old Della, a blind gray seal, who got her name after being rescued off the coast of Delaware.

The Au-some program is provided with the support of the Rotary of Lewiston/Niagara-On-The-Lake, and the police and fire departments of Niagara Falls.

Admission is free for Aquarium members and $10 per family for non-members. Advance registration is available online at the Aquarium of Niagara.

Future dates for the program are June 24, July 8, Aug. 4, Sept. 2, Oct. 7, Nov. 4 and Dec. 2.


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