As a mom of a son with Autism, I’m always on the hunt for attractions and activities where he can have fun, discover a thing or two and, most importantly, be himself. (I should mention that my son is non-verbal and is taller than me.)
With my 12-year-old in tow, we decided to check out Explore & More – The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Children’s Museum and grab some dinner on a Friday night. That evening happened to be the museum’s Au-Some Evenings event exclusively for kids on the spectrum and their families. We’ve been there on a typical day as well. The biggest difference is there’s more foot traffic on a typical day, which means more noise. My son tends to cover his ears if it gets too loud, so we pack headphones, just in case.
As with most museums, you can bring strollers and backpacks in with you and get a good-size locker for only fifty cents to store the things you won’t need.
Families with children with sensory needs can request a Sensory Friendly Backpack to take around the museum with them. The backpacks contain a set of headphones (a nice amenity since I’ve been known to forget ours at home!) and different fidget toys. You just return it at the end of your visit to be cleaned for the next person.
The museum has three floors chock full of activities for kids with different abilities and interests, yet no space is too overwhelming from a sensory standpoint. The large activity rooms like the Art Studio and Tinkering Tank are the quieter areas with less foot traffic if your child needs a quick break. If your child needs more than a few minutes to relax, there are calming rooms on the second and fourth floors. The second floor also has a large family bathroom complete with a changing table that holds up to 250 pounds!
The night we visited, the most popular “exhibits” were the car wash area, the Moving Water exhibit, the treehouse, and the Rooftop Garden. I have a feeling that’s typical as the waterfall is like a magnet for the kids and although the museum provides smocks so kids can play with the water toys, I always pack an extra shirt because… well, you know.
I can never get my son out of the treehouse, even at 12 years old. It’s a no-shoes, fully accessible (equipped with a wheelchair lift), sensory-friendly dream for any child… and adult. I sat in the clubhouse area for a few minutes just enjoying the dim lighting and relaxing setting. I do have to keep any eye on my son a bit more in this space as there are children of all ages climbing, crawling, sliding, and walking in all directions. I don’t ever want him to accidentally knock over a smaller kiddo. Eeek!
Once I bribe my son to leave the treehouse, we head for the stationary bikes. Nothing like a family challenge where you work to produce electricity by pedaling faster and faster. It’s a blast! Plus, we’re working on gross motor skills. (Shout out to all my OTs!)
Although we stroll past the fishing-inspired play structure on the third floor, it’s perfect for energetic toddlers. The kitchen play space in the Farm to Fork exhibit (fourth floor) are really interactive, plus kids can milk a pretend cow. Enough said.
My son and I ended our visit by taking in the incredible views of Buffalo’s skyline from the museum’s rooftop. It’s an open-air terrace with a fully wrapped safety fence that provides panoramic views of downtown and Canalside. The terrace was empty when we went (early-April) except for the viewing binoculars, but in the summer, the museum staff puts out fun chairs and activities for the kids.
We didn’t eat at the Low Bridge Café on this visit, but it’s got solid options and a nice view. They offer gluten-free rolls and cauliflower pizza crust if you ask.
Speaking of the staff, I have to say that they are stellar. On an Au-some Evening night, there must be at least 20 staff and/or volunteers throughout the museum. On a typical day, I’d assume about the same. Every staff member I saw was taking their cue from the kids, whether that be engaging with them, answering parents’ questions, or just standing back and watching the fun.
Bottom line, the Explore & More museum is a fantastic place to bring individuals of all abilities. My son left with a grin on his face and a hop in his step, which gives me goosebumps, even after almost 13 years.
Families should definitely visit the museum’s Know Before You Go page. You’ll find info on general parking and accessible parking. The waterfront also offers great accessible parking information on its site. Ticket prices, updated hours and more can be found here.
• If you know you’ll be visiting the museum, families with children on the spectrum or who need special accommodations can call the museum beforehand to have a staff member meet you when you arrive. (Love it!)
• The museum allows certified service animals as well, so bring that certificate with you.
• The museum’s sweet spot in terms of age is 2–10-year-olds. My son is just outside that, yet we still have fun!