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Museum’s calm environment time lets kids be kids

Four-year-old Valentin Odushkin Jr. of Lynden beams with excitement as one of the scale model trains passes by at the Imagine Children’s Museum’s train exhibit on Sunday, Dec. 16. Odushkin, who is autistic, and his family are regular participants at the museum’s monthly sensory time, where he spends several joyful hours each month watching the trains as he is fascinated by trains and railroads.

EVERETT — At the Imagine Children’s Museum’s monthly sensory time, for children with autism and sensory processing sensitivities, getting to meet Santa on Dec. 16 helped provide safe holiday memories for a record number of local families.
Jen Garcia, the downtown museum’s visitor services manager, helped create the once-a-month Sunday morning program. She said that the 329 people who preregistered for the sensory-friendly Santa event were the most she’s seen yet.
Garcia described one mom’s reaction to the program: “her son got diagnosed with autism like four months ago and this was their first time here and she said, ‘It’s so wonderful, (the mom) thinks of this as like Disneyland.’ ”
The holiday event provided an exclusive opportunity for children with autism or sensory processing disorders to meet Santa in a quieter, calmer, less intimidating experience. Without the stimuli and social expectations or pressures that can accompany a mall Santa setting, the kids at Imagine were free to approach Saint Nick at their own comfort levels.
Butch Clifford, the museum’s facilities manager, was Santa. He brings close to 20 years of experience working with various special needs children.
“I’m used to people with special needs, how to interact with them so it’s not so overstimulating,” he said.
Clifford said not being too loud and limiting his movements are important to being mindful in his role as Santa.
Melissa Lim’s daughter Ellie, 3, had a heart transplant, leaving her with a weakened immune system, and was also recently diagnosed with autism.
“When there’s a limited amount of kids, it allows us to be able to do everything without having to wear the mask or constantly washing her hands,” Lim said. “She actually gave him a high-five which is a big thing for her, and she did get to sit next to him and took a picture really, really well.”
Clifford described what he enjoys most about wearing the Santa suit. “Having family members coming up to me who’ve never had the opportunity to get a picture with Santa with their kids in a normal environment, where there’s so much stimulation that (it) can overstimulate these kids, and so giving them an opportunity to do that, it’s very rewarding,” he said.
The sensory time is intended for children ages 1 through 12 who face difficulties handling everyday situations. Besides providing a less crowded, compassionate environment to play in, the museum also offers sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones, sensory balls and other special accommodations.
Imagine Children’s Museum, located at 1502 Wall St., offers it for free on the third Sunday of every month from 9 to 11 a.m. The events are funded by the Providence General and Moccasin Lake foundations. Capacity is limited and the museum recommends that families register to attend ahead of time.
Teddy Dillingham, the museum’s director of education, said that the monthly sensory time events started a little over two years ago.
“We had different groups in the community who work with these populations, they gave us tips on planning,” Dillingham said. “We researched with other museums to see what they were doing and what they had tried and failed at, so that we would start off on a really solid foundation.”
Shane and Lisa, who preferred to not have their last name published, have been regularly attending the monthly sensory times with their 6-year-old autistic daughter.
“She looks forward to it,” he said. “It’s a good way for her to get out and be around other kids as well, besides being at school and the playgrounds she doesn’t have any other playmates at home.”
Dillingham described what the events can provide for the kids and their families: “This is like a sense of normalcy for them,” she said. “We wanted to set aside a special time that was for them where it was kind of low pressure and it was other families who were in similar situations, so they wouldn’t have that judgment.”
Shane explained the importance of his daughter being able to learn how to work through sharing space and toys while in a supportive environment: “The interactions sometimes, it’s a little rough with the other kids because she doesn’t have a lot of (experience).”
Lim has been bringing Ellie since March and said the sensory times are a great opportunity for families with special needs. “You get to be a family and you get to have some good times, and it’s free,” she said.
The museum’s next sensory time is Jan. 20. For more information about the sensory time events and to register, visit



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