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Sensory Sensitive Sundays: Where a kid (with special needs) can be a kid

How Chuck E. Cheese’s reaches out to autistic

Modesto pizza place and game arcade tones down the lights and sounds for Sensory Sensitive Sundays.
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Modesto pizza place and game arcade tones down the lights and sounds for Sensory Sensitive Sundays.

A 17-year-old girl runs several yards through Chuck E. Cheese’s, letting out a piercing scream. Perhaps a few people glance her way, but seeing no reason for alarm, they quickly return to their gaming or eating.

Because it’s the first Sunday of the month at the pizza restaurant and amusement arcade on Sisk Road. And that means it’s Sensory Sensitive Sunday — a program that Chuck E. Cheese’s started in early 2017 and that has been at the Modesto location about a year, said General Manager Daniel Oswald.

It’s special time before regular business hours that’s open only to children with autism or other special needs. The lights and sounds are toned down a bit. Staffers selected to work the 9 to 11 a.m. event go through training to help them better serve the children. It’s a lot less crowded — maybe a dozen families came out Sunday morning — than the popular play place can get. And perhaps most important, the people get it.

“Everybody is very understanding, and that’s a big thing,” says Nadine Kleven, who’s there with David Owens and their grandson, 6-year-old Jackson Stone, who is on the autism spectrum. “... Nobody blinks twice if somebody is doing something that might be a little unordinary to other people. It’s just, ‘Oh, we get it, we understand.’”

That behavior might include the occasional scream, pushing onto a ride or game, or having a tantrum.

This week, Amber Mello is a Sensory Sensitive Sunday first-timer with daughter Harper, 9. Harper recently attended the Chuck E. Cheese’s birthday party of friend Emma Lasiter (also present Sunday) during normal business hours, and did OK.

But Sunday is ideal, her mom says.

She welcomed a time and place to do something fun with Harper without having to worry about what her daughter might do or noises she might make. Because of public reaction, “most of the time, we’re very conscious of everything.”

Harper can be overwhelmed simply by the amount of fun she’s having, her mom says, and sometimes her exuberance can look like a tantrum.

Even with reduced lights and sounds, Chuck E. Cheese’s on Sunday morning still is a fairly bright, noisy place. Amber says Harper’s brother also has autism, “and I think this would be too much for him. But she doesn’t get as sensory overloaded.”

However, Harper doesn’t grasp patience, and has a low tolerance for waiting, her mom says. So in a crowded arcade, “if she had to wait for something she wanted to do, that would be really tough for her. She’s not a fan of lines. So this is perfect for her.”

Harper’s friend Emma regularly visits Chuck E. Cheese’s during regular hours, dad Derek Lasiter says. “I like to do the motorcycle, the train and the plane,” the little girl adds about her favorite rides.

But it’s a different experience on Sensory Sensitive Sundays, Derek says. The fewer number of kids makes it less hectic, and Emma usually has classmates to enjoy the time with.

Other first-timers to Sensory Sensitive Sunday this week are Erik Power, his 14-year-old daughter and 5-year-old autistic son, Mays. When Mays last was at Chuck E. Cheese, the crowd and noise were just too much for him, Erik says. This Sunday, Mays is able to run around a little more and doesn’t feel overwhelmed, dad says.

“A lot of it (during regular hours) is the amount of people crammed into such a small space,” Erik says. “Saturdays in the late afternoon, it gets crazy.”

Gloria Magana is out Sunday with a friend’s 17-year-old daughter, Esmi. The teen is a first-Sunday regular because she has challenges with sounds and bright lights that flash quickly, Gloria says.

“She’s still kind of afraid of Chuck E. Cheese, but she’s getting able to tolerate it more.”

The major attraction for Esmi, says Gloria, is collecting the game tickets. She loves to see them fed out of the machines. “That’s her biggest thing, she’s competitive,” Gloria says, “so it’s pretty cool to see that.”

For more on Sensory Sensitive Sundays, including a list of participating locations, go to www.chuckecheese.com/events/sensory-sensitive-sundays.

Among local resources on autism are Autism Behavior Services, Central Valley Autism Project and Autism Speaks Northern California.

Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.
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