STERLING HEIGHTS, MICH. - Mitchell Harvey pulled his mother, Leanne Cilluffo, by the hand, pointing to a large TV, as they quickly walked.
He wanted to show the Sterling Heights woman some of the spaces inside a new play and therapy location in Sterling Heights for children diagnosed with autism and other special needs.
"Like!" the 21-year-old Harvey said of Play-Place for Autistic Children, a 25,000-square-foot facility inside an industrial park near 18 Mile and Mound.
Rebecca Schneider of Washington Township couldn't agree more.
She and her husband, Tom, sat with their 8-year-old son Brendan reading a book on a big leather couch in front of a full-size carousel that costs $1 to ride. Brendan loved the spot, particularly the carousel because the family sponsored a horse that Brendan named "Brendan Squarepants."
"(Brendan) getting to socialize, it's a big thing. It's hard in a normal environment. It's difficult. He has different behaviors some other kids don't understand," Rebecca Schneider said. "They've made it sensory friendly, so fun, so lively. We all feel comfortable."
Shell Jones, director of Play-Place for Autistic Children, said that's the goal of the locale — making it a place where the children, their families and siblings can play and learn together, be themselves and where parents can talk with other parents about their shared experience.
"It's the first of its kind in the country," said Jones, of Shelby Township, whose 13-year-old son, Duane, was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 1/2.
About four years ago, Jones began trying to create a space where children like her son could just be themselves — a place where people wouldn't stare or whisper or where her son wouldn't feel embarrassed.
Last month, Play-Place for Autistic Children opened, offering large spaces inside where children and their families or caregivers can do art, build Legos inside a large castle, play on swings or computers or ride a carousel in a building with LED lights instead of florescent lights, which can affect the children through their buzzing and flickering, Jones said. There's even calming rooms with chairs and stuffed animals for the children.
In the future, a barber shop will open where children can get a hair cut — a simple task that children with autism or special needs often find difficult because of the vibration of buzz clippers or sitting still long enough and one that is often handled by their parents.
There's a movie theater that will have some sensory friendly lighting and quieter volume level that is to open down the road in addition to a cafe. There also will be a retail store where volunteers, many with autism, will sell items, teaching them job skills that can help them in addition to helping those they are serving. Jones said that is important considering that there is a 94% unemployment rate for children with autism.
There are 10 signup sheets for various classes being offered at the location.
Ninety percent of the $1.7-million project was covered through donations of material and labor from various trade unions. A business is covering the salaries of the two employees, with fundraising and grants covering operating costs, organizers said.
Autism spectrum disorder is a life-long neurological disability signified by social-communication and behavioral deficits with the severity varying from person to person, according to the state of Michigan website. Those with autism may have difficulty socializing, communicating and behaving appropriately in a variety of settings.
About 50,000 people in Michigan have autism spectrum disorder, according to the website.
Cilluffo said her son was diagnosed with Hypomelanosis of Ito, a condition that makes him non-verbal, cognitively impaired, having stability issues and epilepsy. She said she is fortunate she can take her son to the movies and other locations but Play-Place allows him to advance and be with others and do activities. She said she's learned through the years that "there's not much to do. Everything's a struggle" for children like her son.
"These kids get hurt. I don't think the general public realizes that. They want to be accepted," she said.
State and local dignitaries, including Lt. Gov. Brian Calley toured the location today, with parents and caretakers telling them that it's a place they can take their children — no matter what their age — to feel safe.
Calley said organizers have "incorporated in elements — short and long-term elements– for children with autism," including socialization and work experiences that can be of tremendous value to them. Michael DeVault, superintendent of Macomb Intermediate School District, said his students will be able to take advantage of the programs the facility offers, giving children and their families a place to go after school and on weekends.
Play-Place for Autistic Children is at 41105 Technology Park Drive. It charges $7 per person or families can buy a membership. It is open every day, with its hours to expand in two weeks. For information, go to autisticplayplace.org.
Detroit Free Press