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Special Needs Kids Get A Room of Their Own at Brooklyn Children's Museum

By Sonja Sharp | August 2, 2012 6:32am

CROWN HEIGHTS — Elaine Stillerman calls herself a hurricane and, while she might not be a literal force of nature, the 62-year-old mother is nevertheless poised to reshape a Brooklyn landmark.   

More than two years after she stormed out of the Brooklyn Children's Museum in Crown Heights in a "seismic" rage for the lack of accommodation for her son Luke, 13,  who is on the autism spectrum, Stillerman is about to see her dream realized this fall.

The museum is set to debut a sensory room designed just for kids with special needs. 

"I was relentless," Stillerman said of her quest to get a special space dedicated to children like her son.

"We are such a hungry community, eager to spend the dollars, that it makes sense for businesses to open their doors to us, to do what needs to be done." 

It's not just Stillerman who was searching. 

The room was funded in part by a $25,000 grant from the Brooklyn Community Foundation, one of three awards totaling more than $45,000 for programs serving children with special needs in the borough, where parents say those services are sorely lacking.

Brooklyn Children's Museum Educator Wema Harris said she constantly fields calls from local parents looking for places where their kids can be kids. 

Those places can be surprisingly hard to find. Despite an exponential increase in the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder among children in the United States, only a handful of venues exist specially designed to serve them in New York City. 

They include a Sunday program at the 92nd Street Y and a sensory gym called Extreme Kids and Crew in Bed-Stuy, which also received a Brooklyn Community Foundation grant.

Children on the autism spectrum often become overwhelmed in the flurry of running feet and the cacophony of happy shrieking that distinguishes the Children's Museum from the Met. At the same time, many crave the same textures, colors and sounds the museum encourages children to explore.

"Certain kids are going to be able to come into a museum environment and adapt and be OK and be able to do the same things anyone else would do walking into the museum," said Aaron Feinstein of The Miracle Project New York, which consulted on the sensory room.

"But there are other kids whose sensory differences are so significant that coming into a museum is really difficult. With the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, we’re trying to create an environment where these kids can come in and enjoy the museum." 

The sensory room, which will soon occupy what is now a classroom space in the Neighborhood Nature exhibit, will have an entire wall of textures, a tank of fluorescent fish, and a swing large enough to accommodate adults and children. The lights will be filtered. The floor will be soft and the noise controlled.

"The community is very, very excited about this happening," Harris said. "It's really nice to provide it for the families that have been searching for it." 

The room is slated to open in early October, when the museum will reopen following a three-week renovation.

For Stillerman, it can't come soon enough.

"They’re doing this right. It’s a credit to the museum and I’m honored that they took this passionate plea very, very seriously,” Stillerman said.

“It takes a village, but it takes a mother to be the keystone of change.”