DuBOIS — A local church has taken a big step in making a difference for families and children with autism, giving them a place to feel safe.

Lakeside United Methodist Church recently became the first church in the area to incorporate a “sensory room” into its facility.

Lori Fetzer, a Lakeside UMC member and Early Intervention Occupational Therapist, said the room is open to any church member who has a child with autism or sensory issues.

The room, which was officially completed about a month ago, was previously a computer room, and has been remodeled. Its walls are painted a calming baby blue color, and it encompasses a big “crash pad” bean bag, ball pit, flickering wall lights and other eye-catching items and activities. The room was made specifically to be not only soothing, but “visually alluring” to the eye, Fetzer said.

Everything in it was put there for a reason — the sparkling lights and reflective CD discs on the walls and cabinet, the bubbling fish lava lamp and the popcorn and bean sandbox. Touching dry-texture items like popcorn kernels or the rocking motion of a rocking chair tend to be calming for children with autism, according to Fetzer.

The “squishyness” or squeezing of items is also a relaxing mechanism for them. There is a “weighed caterpillar” stuffed animal the children can hold, since feeling something heavy in their hands can also be helpful, she said.

“Normally we go about our day and things don’t bother us, but light, touch, loud noises — these things can bother them,” Fetzer said.

Parents who have children with autism or other disabilities often have trouble fitting in or getting themselves involved socially in a community, since these children can sometimes act out if they are triggered by something like light or loud noises.

Sadly, many of these families stay home, simply out of reluctance to be around others.

“We wanted a room where we can include these families in everything we do,” she said. “I hope that families will feel comfortable enough to attend our services or Sunday school.”

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Children with autism can have trouble calming down, which is where a lot of the items in the room come into play.

“If they are in the midst of a meltdown, this room is here,” Fetzer said. “It will help them think of something besides what made them angry.”

Fetzer said every child displays autism differently, so “when you have met one autistic child, that doesn’t mean you’ve met them all.” People in the community may be inclined to judge or assume the child is just acting out aggressively, when there is much more to their story, Fetzer said.

Many other disabilities can accompany sensory issues. Sensory rooms can also be useful for children with visual impairment.

Sensory rooms have come about because of a new approach to therapy called sensory integration, “a form of therapy that refers to the integration and interpretation of sensory stimulation from the environment by the brain,” according to www.autism.com.

April was National Autism Awareness Month, during which many supporters sported the “Puzzle Ribbon,” and aimed to spread support and education through online and local events and fundraisers. The nationwide effort was initiated to ensure each person with autism has the opportunity to live a high-quality life, feeling included and accepted in communities around the world.

The sensory room also offers a small trampoline and tent, as well as the cooling floor mat there for safety measures.

UMC volunteers have been completely on board with this effort, aiming to make the church an inclusive environment for all families, Fetzer said. “We are just kind of seeing what God does with it, and for him to show us the way.”

For more information on autism awareness, www.autism-society.org.

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