HOUSTON – Space Center Houston continues to work to ensure that it is an accessible and accepting destination and now can accommodate guests with autism spectrum disorder.
The science and space exploration learning center is the first of its kind to be designated as a Certified Autism Center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.
"Science, technology, engineering and mathematics education is for everyone," said William T. Harris, the center's president and CEO. "This certification highlights our dedication to be inclusive and to inspire the next generation of problem solvers."
The certification process involves rigorous training for staff, inspections and improvements that enable Space Center Houston to better welcome and accommodate guests with autism spectrum disorder and other sensory and cognitive challenges.
Being a Certified Autism Center also includes a commitment to maintain that training and provide the best guest experience possible.
"This is who we are," said Harris. "We are a values-based organization and we've incorporated accessibility and inclusion into the very fabric of Space Center Houston as part of our way forward."
In 2016, Space Center Houston hired Stephanie McMahon, a special education certified teacher and mother to an autistic child, as a senior lead instructor in its Education Department.
The center named McMahon as their accessibility and inclusion coordinator in 2017. She expanded her training to include the customer service staff who interact with guests on a daily basis.
"Space Center Houston was always welcoming to guests with special needs," McMahon said. "I was able to help support that commitment by leading informal training for my instructor colleagues on working with guests with disabilities, including autism."
Her workshops share techniques for special circumstances, such as how to respond to a child who elopes, or runs when overwhelmed.
"We train our team about awareness and sensitivity, best practices for instruction and interactions."
McMahon also leads the Accessibility and Inclusion working group, composed of representatives from across departments at Space Center Houston.
"The working group is our forum to brainstorm, plan and create plans to ensure that we are meeting all our guests' needs," said McMahon. "From facilities to our website, everyone comes together to support our accessibility and inclusion initiatives."
The center offers "Sensory Friendly Evenings," with reduced lights, sounds and crowds as well Space Center University for the visually impaired and other events designed to provide quality learning experiences for guests with special needs.
McMahon also noted the center's development of the "Stellar Explorer Guide," that individuals and school groups can use to prepare guests with autism for an upcoming visit and "Vocabulary Cards" for non- or low-verbal guests that can help with transitions and timelines.
"Beyond special events, we take great pride in welcoming guests with special needs every day," McMahon said. "We offer sensory friendly backpacks, which have sound-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, a fun space book and other sensory items."
"This is an exciting time at Space Center Houston. We have a proud history of welcoming anyone interested in science and space exploration and we are working hard every day to improve on that legacy."