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Baltimore museum adapts Polar Express ride to be more sensory-friendly

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Christmastime can bring a lot of joy and fun and stimulation. Music, blinking lights, crowds and smells can all be overwhelming for some people, especially if they're on the autism spectrum. Baltimore's Polar Express train ride has been adapted for neurodivergent young people, and member station WYPR's Scott Maucione is about to take us on a ride.

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: At Baltimore's B&O Railroad Museum during Christmas, there's lots of historic trains you can climb into. Hot chocolate's at the ready. There's cookies for munching - and, of course, a magical trip to the North Pole on the Polar Express to see Santa.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

MAUCIONE: That's a dream come true for many kids, including the 8-year-old I'm riding with today, Henry Lockwood, who sometimes likes to go by Harry.

HENRY LOCKWOOD: Hi, Scott.

MAUCIONE: Are you excited for today?

HARRY: Yes.

MAUCIONE: Good.

HARRY: Are you named Scott?

MAUCIONE: I'm Scott. Yes.

PAM STINER: Do you want him to call you Henry or Harry?

HARRY: Harry.

STINER: Harry.

MAUCIONE: Harry? OK. Hi. How are you?

Like many kids, he's experimenting, and he's very excited for the trip as he waits with his dad, Phil Lockwood.

PHIL LOCKWOOD: Chugga, chugga, chugga, chugga, chugga, chugga, choo-choo. Can you do that? Let me hear your train.

HARRY: Ah, aah, ah, ah.

LOCKWOOD: What kind of train is that?

MAUCIONE: Harry's is on the autism spectrum, so sometimes too much stimulation, or too little, can cause him to feel anxious or distressed. Harry's mom, Pam Stiner, says coming to events like this take preparation.

STINER: I first make sure I'm ready, my hands are free - 'cause he's quick - wearing sneakers generally. But he also - I've got fidgets in here to keep him occupied, things that can distract him. Now - yeah, it's just making sure I've got a tool kit in my purse to try to navigate.

MAUCIONE: People with neurodivergence can often have trouble processing loud noises, lights and other sensory inputs. There's been a growing movement to make events more sensory friendly by providing accommodations for people with sensitivity. This holiday season, organizations and companies are offering events like sensory-friendly Santas, where Mr. Claus is trained to make the experience more comfortable for neurodivergent people. The B&O Railroad Museum is doing the same. Lee Anne Spear, an educational specialist at the museum, says they alert parents with a sensory map to point out where vents are in the ride.

LEE ANNE SPEAR: So if there's a sudden change in lighting or a section of the experience is particularly loud, where character interactions will happen, all of that is laid out on that map.

LOCKWOOD: For those situations, the museum provides noise-blocking headphones. There's also fidget toys available for people who feel under stimulated, and there's a sensory tent once you arrive at the North Pole that's away from loud noises and light. Harry's someone who often needs more stimulation in the form of pressure, chewing, hugs and lights, which makes the Polar Express an optimal experience for him. Once on the ride, there's plenty to keep him occupied, like dancing train employees and a visit from Santa. Harry's favorite part, though, was the bells that were handed out.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS JINGLING)

LOCKWOOD: By the time the train ride is over, Harry's starting to get a little tired. His mom, Pam, notices that he's getting agitated.

STINER: I think it's important to always know when enough is enough and to walk away.

MAUCIONE: So we head over to the sensory tent, which is dark and much quieter. Harry plops face down in a beanbag chair.

STINER: This is like the one we have at home - Big Joe. Are you going to go to sleep?

MAUCIONE: After some chill time, we head out, but there's still a few things on Harry's mind.

HARRY: Can Harry drink hot chocolate with marshmallow, please?

MAUCIONE: For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione in Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Maucione
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