A wide spectrum: Shores & Islands showcases myriad resources for those with autism and sensory needs

Nichole Wade is no stranger to people with sensory issues, having grown up with two autistic brothers. 

“We knew that if we were going to go to a movie, we had to sit through the credits until they end,” says Wade, the assistant experience director with Shores & Islands Ohio. “Even driving to a location (could be an issue). One of my brothers had a fascination with trains – that was a big thing. Like, if we were going across the train tracks, we kind of had to wait until a train came.”

She also learned not to ask her brothers open-ended questions.

“It was very much a yes-or-no conversation a lot of the time.”

That baked-in knowledge helps to explain why Wade oversees Shores & Islands' list of sensory- and autism-friendly resources offered by the organization's myriad partner entities. It is an extensive rundown of what several businesses and organizations provide, such as sensory rooms and sensory bags. 

Cedar Point, for example, makes available myriad accessibility-related services across its various attractions. One of those services is a wristband so if a child with a sensory disorder becomes lost, a Cedar Point employee can identify the child, says Wade, singling out an example.

Shores & Islands Ohio isn’t stopping with the web page.

Children enjoy the Clark Family Sensory Space at Ability Works in Perkins Township.“Before, actually, I started at Shores & Islands, they began compiling the list that you see on the website,” Wade says during a phone interview. 

After starting with the organization in the summer, she says, she attended a conference where she encountered a representative of The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, which bills itself as a “global leader in professional autism & neurodiversity training and certification.” They started a conversation about Shores & Islands becoming an IBCCES-certified autism travel destination, Wade says, which will involved everyone on staff to become a certified autism travel professional.

“So if anybody needs to get any resources to assist them or their guests, we’re going to be there to help,” she says. “And then after we go through that training … we would love to have a handful of our partners become certified, as well. It’s a big project, but … we would love to have everybody get trained and certified.”

That isn’t to say some area attractions aren’t already making significant efforts.

“I have a lot of experience in the water park resorts in Sandusky, and, obviously, the water park alone is a very overstimulating place,” she says. “When I was at Kalahari (Resorts & Conventions - Sandusky), we started the conversation and they built a sensory room, so they’ve got a really great space and some resources there.”

Another sensory room Wade singles out is the Clark Family Sensory Space at Ability Works in Perkins Township. 

“I personally got to tour the sensory room at Ability Works,” Wade says. “It’s an incredible space for someone to go visit if they need time away.”

Opened in 2019, the room is regularly used by the folks Ability Works serves by helping them find employment, transportation and more. However, it’s also available – strictly by employment – for visitors to the area who may have a family member who benefits from being able to step away from the fun Sandusky offers, says Peggy Heim, director of client relations. 

“(It) has different kinds of equipment in it,” Heim says. “There are bubble types with mirrors behind them. We have a large saltwater fish aquarium, We have an interactive game that projects onto the floor, and you can switch (between) about 12 or 14 games. We have something that projects onto the wall. We have fiber-optic lighting in the room. There’s one smaller space that is a black-light room, and then there are four panels on the wall that you can interact with, and they all do different things.”

That all sounds like a lot of stimulation, does it not?

Children enjoy the Clark Family Sensory Space at Ability Works in Perkins Township.“(It’s suggested) that you don’t have all the equipment turned on when a person initially comes for the first visit,” she says. “Then, you introduce them to certain things so that you can figure out what they can handle.”

Requiring a structural add-on to the Ability Works facility, the room is the result of a grant from the room’s namesake entity, which paid for much of it. They wanted it to be a free space for those who needed it and left it to Ability Works to decide what equipment to purchase, Heim says. For that, they worked with the education-based company FlagHouse Inc. 

“We told them what we were looking for,” she says. “We picked up some things for the room, and then they came and set the whole room up.”

Appointments for the room are for 30 minutes, and Heim tries to make herself available for the occasional weekend slot if a family in need isn’t able to visit during the week. Also, at least one adult must remain onsite with the child.

The feedback has been wonderful, she says.

“People are just flabbergasted by how nice the room is,” Heim says, on a recent afternoon by phone. “I just had a family in here. It was a grandma and one child who was probably on the autism spectrum (along with two other) children.

“It worked for all three of them, different aspects of the room.”

A few families have been making use of the space for a while.

“And you get to see (a child’s) development throughout the years,” she says. “I’m not attributing it all to the sensory room, but it’s very exciting. 

“We had one family who brought their daughter in when she was probably 3 or 4 years old, and their reaction was, ‘This is the first time she’s been happy for this amount of time – because she usually gets unhappy pretty fast.”

Wade appreciates all that is being done in the area in the name of accessibility but says there’s always room for more. 

“A lot of it is just awareness,” she says. “People don’t realize that one in six people have a sensory disorder or that one in 36 children are diagnosed with autism. So our goal is to get the word out and then also to encourage our larger partners (to help families) who wouldn’t normally travel because of the challenge who come to the Shores & Islands area and feel comfortable knowing that there are a lot of different places (they) can enjoy comfortably.”