Tuesday, February 23, 2010

NJ museum opens its arms to children with autism

From The Courier-Post: In the picture, Lauren Green of Mount Laurel plays with shaving cream during the Open Arms event for autistic children and their families at Garden State Discovery Museum.

CHERRY HILL, N.J. — Kim Marple knew just how to gauge how much fun her 6-year-old had Sunday evening at the Garden State Discovery Museum.

"I'm going to have to carry him out of here kicking and screaming," said Marple, of West Deptford, a mother of three children with autism spectrum disorders. "If he has a meltdown on a typical day it might be a tragedy for us and everyone else. Here, if he melts, he just blends in. He can be himself."

Marple and her children Kendall, 4, Owen, 6, and Hunter, 9, were among dozens of families Sunday attending Open Arms night at the museum, a free evening of play and fellowship for children with autism and their families.

Autism spectrum disorders are among a group of serious developmental diseases that appear in early childhood, usually before 3. Symptoms and severity vary, but all autism disorders affect a child's ability to communicate and interact, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic of Minnesota.

Social interaction, language and behavior are three crucial areas of development affected by ASD. Developing social skills early can be a key to social development and language skills later, experts say. Parents like Marple say events like Open Arms help make their kids feel normal and give them a chance to enjoy a public outing.

"It means I don't have to be embarrassed if Owen is making a scene," she said. "I don't have to feel like I'm alone. This is a night out for us, too."

The Discovery Museum hold events like this at least four times a year. ASD families are invited to explore the 22,000-square-foot facility geared for children up to 10 years old. It's a sensory experience of interactive exhibits such as a Courier-Post newsroom where kids can write their own stories and print out a front page with their picture on it. Other exhibits include slices of New Jersey life including diners, down-the-shore and farm-and-wildlife themes.

Museum Executive Director Roree Iris-Williams said Open Arms was started in 2005 to meet the needs of a special community.

"It gives families a chance to relax without feeling scrutinized in public," she said. "These families face a lot of challenges and this gives them breathing room."

Iris-Williams hopes the program will not only be good for families who attend but also build tolerance for ASD among people who hear about Open Arms.

One special event Sunday just for ASD families involved shaving cream. Lots and lots of shaving cream. ASD children often enjoy the feel and smell of shaving cream. It feeds their sensory experiences, experts say.

"My kids love the shaving cream," said Eileen McGourn, of Washington Township, a mother of two ASD children. "It's a great tactile experience. It's an organizing thing for them."

McGourn said her daughter Moria, 10, is very spirited but not verbal. Her son, John, 11, is higher functioning, but still needs constant supervision. She is a homemaker because her children need her near because of frequent illnesses, which is part of the disorder, she said. But she still has hope that events like Open Arms will one day give her kids the ability to function on their own.

"I have dreams for them like any parent has for their kids," she said.

ASD is four times as likely to appear in boys than girls, the CDC says. An average of one in 110 children in the nation have autism or related ASD diseases such as Asperger syndrome. There is no cure for ASD but research shows that early intervention programs like the event at the Discovery Museum can greatly improve a child's development.

Known causes and risks of ASD include the age of the parent, particularly if the man is over 40; a family history of the disorder; and factors during pregnancy, such as the prescription drugs thalidomide and valproic acid. One link that has not been proved is between autism and certain childhood vaccines, particularly for measles-mumps-rubella and vaccines with thimerosal, a preservative that contains a small amount of mercury, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most children's vaccines have been free of thimerosal since 2001, a Mayo report said.