Solving a Puzzle for Local Parents of Kids on the Autism Spectrum

A mom’s quest for inclusion for her son resulted in a space of respite for other families with autistic children. Plus, local autism events and accommodations.
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The Autism Hero Walk includes full-day admission to the Detroit Zoo. // Photograph courtesy of Autism Hero Walk

When Shell Jones’s son Duane was first diagnosed with autism at age 2 1⁄2, she quickly realized how few recreational opportunities there were for kids like him. While there were places that could accommodate him, there were hardly any kids’ venues that were created specifically to meet the needs of autistic children. This inspired Jones to open Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center in 2016, 12 years after his diagnosis.

Play-Place in Sterling Heights was designed for families to enjoy quality time together. “They can hang out, have fun and not be judged,” Jones says. “It gets the whole family out of the house. I like to loosely describe it as a Chuck E. Cheese.”

Inside are bounce houses, an art room, an iPad room, and more. One of the features Jones is most proud of is the Haircut Hut, where autistic children are seen by a stylist who understands their needs. The room includes themed stylist chairs, TVs, and plenty of sensory toys for kids to hold or fidget with while getting their haircut. According to Jones, haircuts can take a while, depending on if the child needs multiple breaks or more time to acclimate to the environment, which is why she sets aside an entire hour for each appointment.

An estimated 40,000 children in Michigan are autistic, yet Jones struggled to find a specialized day care facility for autistic kids. Play-Place’s Preschool Respite Program caters to working parents who need a place to complement their child’s preschool education.

“Those programs are usually half-day,” Jones says. “You bring them [here] as a plus to supplement their school day. And you can go to work, and we’ll make sure that they’re confident, having fun, being well taken care of, fed, and in a safe environment.”

Respite services are also available for autistic teens and young adults as well, as Jones recognizes the importance of allowing all parents time to themselves. Play-Place’s Weekend Respite Day Camps are offered Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for ages 6 to 26.

“Having a kid with special needs can be very isolating,” Jones says. “If you get a chance to refresh and refuel, you’re in better shape to be able to take care of your child. It’s tough being a mom, even without having a child with special needs.”

Play-Place offers a $45 monthly membership, which includes unlimited admission, a complimentary haircut, and opportunities for additional camps and programs. Walk-in daily admission is $7 per child/dependent and $3 per adult.

For more information, visit autisticplayplace.org. 

Autism- and Sensory-Friendly Events

Autism Hero Walk

The largest gathering of people with autism in the state happens every year at the Detroit Zoo. The mile walk around the zoo takes place Sep. 21 and is sponsored by the Autism Alliance of Michigan and includes full-day admission to the zoo along with arts and crafts, entertainment events, and access to autism resource vendors. autismallianceofmichigan.org

Bowlero Lanes & Lounge

Every Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m., the Royal Oak bowling alley hosts low-sensory hours, where the lights and music are lowered. For $7, bowlers get free shoe rental and “all you can bowl” during the two hours. Bowlero is an IBCCES-certified autism center and is also fully ADA compliant. Weighted vests and noise-canceling headphones are available free of charge. bowlerodetroit.com

DNR Outdoor Adventure Center Sensory-Friendly Days

Experience the beauty of the outdoors in the heart of Detroit during one of the Outdoor Adventure Center’s sensory-friendly days. On April 7 and May 5 from 10 a.m. to noon, enjoy the nature center with lowered noise levels and access to a quiet room. In April, the OAC celebrates the return of migratory birds with a themed craft and a walk on the surrounding riverfront to look for birds. michigan.gov

Henry Ford Museum

Despite the bright lights and multisensory exhibits, the Henry Ford Museum goes to great lengths to ensure everyone can enjoy their time there. In addition to noise-canceling headphones and earplugs included in sensory kits, the museum also offers sensory-friendly maps, which mark areas that might be overstimulating. Quiet spaces are located throughout the museum, giving folks a safe place to relax. All staff members have undergone the Michigan Autism Safety Training program put on by the Autism Alliance of Michigan, providing them with ways to recognize and communicate with those with autism. Through a partnership with Museums for All, the entrance fee is $3 for recipients of SNAP and WIC benefits. thehenryford.org

Sensory-Friendly Films at Emagine and AMC

Movie theaters can be very overwhelming, which is why AMC and Emagine theaters across Michigan offer sensory-friendly film showings. The theater lights are turned up and the sound turned down, making it easier for viewers with sensory sensitivities to enjoy the flick. Emagine theaters also allow visitors to bring in a safe snack from home to munch on during the movie. They also encourage guests to interact during the film, with talking and tablet use allowed. Participating Emagine locations include Canton, Macomb, Novi, Rochester Hills, and Royal Oak. For showtimes, visit emagine-entertainment.com/sensory-friendly. AMC locations include Sterling Heights, Clinton Township, and Livonia. Visit amctheatres.com/programs/sensory-friendly-films.


This story originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on April 5.