116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A growing number of institutions are recognizing not only the importance of inclusivity but the evolving definition of what it means to be inclusive of people with different abilities and needs.
For many organizations in Eastern Iowa, that definition has grown over the last several years to include programming specifically for children with sensory needs — an environment or materials that don’t overstimulate their senses.
“There’s definitely a need for these services,” said Heather Wagner, an adaptive arts specialist and director of operations at the Eastern Iowa Art Academy. “We’ve noticed we went from having eight students in class to having 38 students. It’s growing.”
Wagner and the Eastern Iowa Art Academy have been providing art classes for children with autism and other disabilities for the last seven years and have expanded their services into five organizations and local schools like Washington High School and Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids.
With special air-dry clay, brushes, colors and materials tailored to sensory needs, weekly classes provide an outlet for expression that not only aids creativity, but teaches students with other disabilities how to express themselves and establish skills for life. For students who are “tactile defensive,” Washington High School teacher Amy Shoemaker said this kind of programming is often overlooked as a critical need.
With hand over hand movements and plenty of breaks, students are embedded with skills for life after school like choice making and prioritization through fun projects like clay fish.
“We’ve seen them express themselves in ways we’ve never seen before,” through the art classes, Shoemaker said.
Other projects highlight often overlooked parts of art — its textile stimulation through sound and touch.
“This one student had a very hard time focusing on what they were painting. We went around in a circle with a brush,” said Wagner. “We chose a paint that glided nicely on soft paper. She was just overjoyed by that.”
It’s an experience traditional art would not have been able to provide her, and a simple joy many take for granted. Through art, they can articulate things outside of their verbal skills.
Over the last few years, other institutions have started to catch on to these needs, too.
Now, there are multiple institutions that provide programming and equipment for families with neurodiverse kids who have special sensory needs.
Cedar Rapids Public Library: All staff are trained to recognize those experiencing overstimulation. The library provides free loaner bags to kids with noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads. Quieter, more secure rooms are also available.
Iowa Children’s Museum: The Iowa Children’s Museum has been sensory-certified for 8 years and offers Super Hero Night, a monthly opportunity from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month for families with special needs.
National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library: The next Hubert’s Night Owls for those with sensory needs will be from 4 to 5 p.m. on Feb. 5. The museum adapts exhibits and offers more tactile opportunities to neurodiverse learners.
The Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium: This Dubuque destination will offer its first sensory-friendly morning from 8 to 10 a.m. on Feb. 6.
In 2014, the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville introduced sensory-inclusive events each year to give all kids an equal chance to get in on the fun.
“All kids deserve to play and have experiences,” said Amanda Thys, communications director for the museum.
Now, the museum has the events one morning each month, a quieter time for families with special needs to get the most out of their visits.
“The thought process was instead of having one event per year, have an event that’s accessible throughout the year,” Thys said.
They were an early adopter among location institutions that has prompted others like the library to follow.
Late last year, the Cedar Rapids Public Library earned a sensory-inclusive certification and started providing sensory bags with noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads. Their libraries also offer designated quiet rooms for a more secure environment.
For a relatively quiet place like the library, the need came to the institution’s consciousness in an unexpected way.
“We were talking about it … and then we had a complaint from a parent who was using the library with their child, who was on the autism spectrum,” said Dara Schmidt, executive director of the library. “The hand dryers in the bathroom were so loud that it was really disruptive. The kid was afraid to come to the library.”
Schmidt said examples like that help highlight the evolving definition of inclusivity and accessibility, core pillars of the library’s mission.
“I was definitely unaware of how things like that can be so overwhelming,” she said. “It goes to (show) what matters to us and how libraries work as institutions — responding to our communities’ needs. It’s our responsibility to ensure we’re changing along with our community to help those who need help the most.”
In February 2020, the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library introduced new sensory-friendly programming for those on the autism spectrum, a follow-up to efforts in 2018 that introduced exhibit tours for the visually impaired and personalization for special education classes.
Hubert’s Night Owls, the sensory-friendly night each month, modifies exhibits by reducing stimuli. Lights are dimmed, displays that make noise are turned off and additional opportunities are put in place to produce a more tactile experience, like allowing visitors to touch and feel pieces of traditional folk attire from the teaching collection.
“At the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML) we believe we are a museum for all, encouraging self-discovery so that the stories of freedom, identity, family and community will live on for future generations,” said Michelle Dupuy, marketing content specialist for the museum.
Following others in Eastern Iowa, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque has a new sensory sensitive event starting next month.
“One thing that we do here is we try to keep the pulse on the best practices in facilities like ours,” said Jennifer Drayna, education coordinator for the museum. “We started to notice a lot of our counterparts exploring that idea.”
Like other museums, the Mississippi River Museum will set aside a time and make some simple but helpful changes to exhibits. After testing sensory-inclusive programming with outreach programming, they’ve opened it up to the rest of their campus.
“We knew there was a need,” Drayna said. “We wanted to make sure we did it right.”
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