Charlottean Paula Williams guided the hand of her son Ty, 9, to the glass surface of the exhibit of lionfish.
Ty, who has autism, does not communicate verbally, but Williams said he enjoys touching things and seems particularly interested in textures.
Williams and her son were enjoying the Autism Awareness Night at the Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium on Oct. 15. Another special night for children with autism is scheduled 3-8 p.m. Oct. 29, with a reduced admission of $10.50 per person.
Like many who have autism, or autism spectrum disorder, Ty is unusually sensitive to loud noises, bright lights and crowds. The disorder also affects the part of brain that controls communication and social interaction skills.
Some with the disorder have sensitivity to touch or smells. Each person with autism is different, but for some, these things can cause sensory overload.
The aquarium, in partnership with the Charlotte chapter of Autism Speaks – a nonprofit advocacy group for people with autism spectrum disorder – made other adjustments to make itself more sensory-friendly for those who visited.
Usually the spectator area is dark, so that the exhibits stand out, said Kelly Finnessy, marketing coordinator for the aquarium. But for autism awareness nights, the aquarium raises the spectator lights to eliminate much of the darkness and lowers the music volume.
The crowds on Wednesday nights are smaller, too, which enhances the experience for the families, said Maeghan Pawley, programs and services manager for Autism Speaks Southeast.
Williams likes to take her son out to experience many things, but because of his unpredictability, she said, she sometimes doesn’t take the risk that he will have to leave because he gets overloaded.
“It is hard to put down $20 a person to go to a place like this and then have to leave after 5 minutes because Ty gets overstimulated,” she said.
She has noticed that the community is becoming more aware and making some adjustments for people like Ty.
The family has been to three sensory-friendly films at the AMC Concord Mills 24 theaters. They had to leave the first one after 30 minutes, but the last time they attended, Ty stayed for the whole movie.
Pawley said the organization trained the Sea Life staff on typical behavior to expect and how to deal with it to help make the experience as comfortable as possible for the families.
Williams said Ty will stay calm and pay attention when he is comfortable and interested in an activity. Sherry Ott, Ty’s community assistance provider, came with the pair in case Williams needed her help, but he seemed very at ease in the adjusted environment.
“When he came here for a field trip with school he was pretty anxious, but he seems fine today,” Ott said. Both women observed that Ty had stayed at many of the exhibits for several minutes.
Williams said, “I worry about the same things other parents worry about. Some things are different, but they aren’t worse.
“I just want people to know (Ty) is just a regular little 9-year-old boy; he just does things a little differently.”
Finnessy said she invites everyone to enjoy the discount and the adjusted environment at the aquarium on Oct. 29.
So for those who have a child who is scared of dark places or who would like to learn more about those with autism spectrum disorder, a trip to the aquarium that night may help.