Sensory Friendly Sunday at the Franklin InsitutePennsylvania’s most-visited museum, Philadelphia’s The Franklin Institute, opens on occasional Sundays strictly for visitors of any age with sensory differences. Occupational Therapy (OT) student volunteers from Salus University participate in these events alongside trained museum staff for support as guests are treated to exhibits specifically modified for them, along with countless other special features.

“Sensory-Friendly Sunday helps to break down barriers so children of all different
abilities are able to enjoy what the museum has to offer,” said Salus student volunteer Katie Stone ‘17OT.

This program is one part of a 10-year relationship between associate professor
Fern Silverman, EdD, OTR/L, and The Franklin Institute, which operates under the following: “In the spirit of inquiry and discovery embodied by Benjamin Franklin, the mission of The Franklin Institute is to inspire a passion for learning about science and technology.”

As Dr. Silverman pointed out, “we know people on the spectrum have sensory differences, but also a connection with science.” A 2013 study in the Journal of Autism and Spectrum Disorders found that in general, autistic individuals are more likely than the general public to gravitate towards science, technology, education and math. Conversely, this guest interested in visiting the museum could also be
overwhelmed when experiencing it as-is. In an effort to create a space just for
them, an accessibility team was formed at the museum, and Sensory-Friendly
Sunday was born.

Sensory Friendly Sunday
Once every two months, The Franklin Institute opens at 8 a.m. for these visitors
only. They can pre-purchase tickets at a reduced rate. And, the museum is all
theirs for exclusive use until 9:30 a.m.,at which time, it opens to all guests. The
specially adapted exhibits are available until 12:30 p.m.

Examples of modifications include gloves for use at a messy man-made stream table exhibit and potholders for several exhibits to reduce the sensation of electric shock. There’s also a modification at Ms. Stone’s favorite part of the museum, the Giant Heart.

Examples of modifications include gloves for use at a messy man-made stream table exhibit and potholders for several exhibits to reduce the sensation of electric shock. There’s also a modification at Ms. Stone’s favorite part of the museum, the Giant Heart.

“The Heart is big enough for children to climb in and crawl through, but typically makes a loud heartbeat sound,” she explained. “Once modified, the heart no longer makes the noises, which can be overwhelming, allowing children to
crawl through the heart with no fear.”

Other benefits of Sensory-Friendly Sunday include:
  • SENSORY MAPS: Guides that indicate the types of sensory input for each exhibit—high, medium, or low for sound, sight, touch, movement and complexity.
  • MUSEUM STORIES: A written and graphic explanation of each exhibit room available during the event. As Salus student volunteer Jenna Napier ‘17OT said, “Parents are able to discuss with their children ahead of time what to expect, which is beneficial as many of these children thrive on predictability.”
  • COOL-DOWN SPACE: A designated quiet spot where participants can go if
    they need a break. The space is “located away from the hustle and bustle,” said Ms. Stone. With dim lights, it includes items for guests to use such as weighted blankets and sensory toys.
Others reap the benefits of the distinct event as well. Extensive research, which
led to published articles, has taken place at the museum as a result. According to
Dr. Silverman, this is “an action project to understand families participating to
improve their experiences.” Not only are Salus OT students involved, but this
program also brings together students from all over the Philadelphia region.

The Franklin Institute is able to bring the museum and the exploration of its exhibits to a wider range of visitors, while OTs advocate for their profession and gain experience in an emerging practice area.

Sensory Friendly Sunday
In 2016, Dr. Silverman, along with Salus assistant professor Andrea Carr Tyszka, MS, OTR/L, SIPT, received the Award for Community Volunteerism from the American Occupational Therapy Foundation for their work with the museum.

The accolades don’t end there. Ms. Napier shared a story of a mother she
met during a Sensory-Friendly Sunday who was taking her autistic son to the
museum for the first time. She feared he would have a meltdown in public. “At The Franklin Institute she felt safe and knew her son would be able to experience the museum in a friendly and non-judgmental manner,” Ms. Napier said. “This conversation made me realize just how important this program is to
these families and the communities.”


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