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Children's Museum opens door to greater inclusiveness


DECATUR – The sights and sounds that make the Children’s Museum of Illinois so engaging can be too much for children with sensory challenges related to autism.

That’s certainly true for Colton Sunderland, 2, of Decatur who was diagnosed in utero with a genetic disease called tuberous sclerosis complex.

“The museum is pretty overwhelming,” said his mother Stormy Sunderland, “and it’s especially frustrating because he has a twin who loves it.”

But thanks in part to efforts by a year-old organization called Not Forgotten, Inc., things are already changing at the museum so that the Sunderlands and others can enjoy it as a family.

A grant from the Junior Welfare Association let the museum add a social story option to their website so families can plan their visit in advance and to the facility some sound-reducing headphones, light reducing eyeglasses and picture schedules so children can understand which exhibits they're going to see and in what order.

This fall the museum will also try out some special hours on Sunday mornings with an eye toward making them a regular feature. During those hours, the classroom near the main entrance will be used as a quiet room for any children who need time and space to calm down.

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"We truly want to be a museum for all children and all families," said Amber Kaylor, who became executive director Aug. 1.

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Becky Harrelson, founder of Not Forgotten, said the group has also approached Scovill Zoo, Decatur Public Library and Carmike Strand about making similar accommodations, and all have been receptive. Staff training is currently being developed for the museum and library.

"At many places, all our families can do is come for five minutes or not at all," Harrelson said. "Small changes make a big difference to our kids."

The difference at the children's museum came after Abby Koester, education director, and Denice Love, assistant professor of elementary and special education at Millikin University, attended a training in Chicago to learn how to go about making a venue more user friendly.

Love has been helping Harrelson develop Not Forgotten, a nonprofit organization to assist children like her son Gabe, 9, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, to make the transition from school at age 22 to employment, to independent living and to social integration.

For more information about Not Forgotten, call (217) 358-8548 or (217) 420-6787, email or find the organization on Facebook or Twitter.

The group meets at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month and provides free child care.

Meanwhile Stormy Sunderland and her husband Matt are looking forward to spending more time at the Children's Museum of Illinois with both their children, Colton and his twin sister Canyon.

“We've been working with Colton on planning our next visit,” Sunderland said.


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