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Aquarium of Niagara: 'Au-Some Aquarium' program offers sensory-friendly fun for children with autism

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Wed, Apr 13th 2016 10:50 am

First program of its kind in Niagara County developed by Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo, D'Youville College and Aquarium of Niagara

The Aquarium of Niagara has launched its "Au-Some Aquarium" program, developed in partnership with Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo and occupational therapy students at D'Youville College. It is the first of its kind in Niagara County, aimed at increasing cultural accessibility, promoting autism awareness and providing a safe and supportive environment for fun and socialization for families with autism spectrum disorders.

The "Au-Some Aquarium" program allows families with ASD children to experience the aquarium in a more low-key and private setting. The program addresses ASD sensitivities by limiting the number of patrons; offering noise-muffling headphones; modifying the sea lion show with minimal sound and no flashing lights; providing a quiet, calm space; and incorporating sensory-friendly activities, such as the touch tank.

The Aquarium of Niagara's website will soon offer a social narrative and point-of-view video to help families with autism prepare for a visit.

ASDs are lifelong, neurobehavioral disorders that impact a child's behavioral, social and communication skills. Current statistics report 1 in 68 children have an 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 approximately 75 percent of individuals with autism and this 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, Buffalo State College, the University at Buffalo, Niagara University and Niagara County Community College will be on hand to assist families and lead the art and gross motor activities, allowing them the opportunity to gain experience interacting with families with autism in a community setting.

Thirty families, each with a child diagnosed with ASD (totaling nearly 100 people), attended the pilot program held in March. Financial support for the program is provided by Rotary of Lewiston/Niagara-On-The-Lake and the Niagara Falls police and fire departments.

"Au-Some Aquarium" will be held from 6-8 p.m. one night per month. The next one will be held on Friday, April 22. Visit the Aquarium of Niagara's website, www.aquariumofniagara.org, for future dates.

The program is free to families with autism who are members of the Aquarium of Niagara, or $10 per family for non-members. Financial scholarship is available.

Since 1965, education has been - the cornerstone of the Aquarium of Niagara's mission. All classes and programs are designed to increase knowledge of conservation awareness and build an appreciation of all aquatic ecosystems into every visitor's life through hands-on experiences and thought-provoking programs and exhibits.

The Children's Guild Foundation Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo is the only center for medically based, multidisciplinary evaluation and diagnosis of children with ASD in Western New York. The center was established in 2010 with a $585,000 grant from The Children's Guild Foundation, which has provided long-standing and significant support for the children and families at Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo.

Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo, a Kaleida Health facility and teaching hospital for the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is the regional center for comprehensive and state-of-the-art pediatric, surgical, neonatal, perinatal and obstetrical services in Western New York and beyond. For more information, visitwww.wchob.org.

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