SINGAPORE - The lights were dimmed and the volume was lowered at the Science Centre Singapore when a group of special needs students visited recently.
The 38 students from Grace Orchard School could also borrow items such as earmuffs in case they found the exhibitions too stimulating.
This was part of the Science Centre's efforts to be more welcoming for those with special needs such as autism and mild intellectual disability.
In collaboration with social service agency APSN (formerly known as Association for Persons with Special Needs), the centre has rolled out sensory level guides for its exhibitions - in particular, indicating how loud or bright they are - to help caretakers identify which ones are suitable for children with special needs.
It has made available "sensory bags", which contain items such as earmuffs and textured toys that can be used as stress balls.
The Science Centre can also arrange sessions upon request for students from special education schools to visit. Its in-house science educators and facilitators have been trained to understand learners with special needs and curate more inclusive programmes and exhibitions.
"Science is for everyone," says Science Centre chief executive Lim Tit Meng, who hopes to create more inclusive learning environments through "steady infrastructural and programmatic changes suitable for learners with special needs".
Ms Lily Yip, APSN's head of curriculum, research and innovation development, says children with special needs may feel anxious when they do not know what to expect, such as when visiting the Science Centre for the first time.
"When this anxiety overtakes them, they may experience emotional meltdowns when they cannot self-regulate their feelings," she says.
The earmuffs and toys can help special needs children to cope with their feelings better and remain calm and focused, she adds.
Ten-year-old student Anson Beh, who has autism, says he likes the toys as they keep his hands occupied and keep him focused.
Mr Kenny Chua, 34, a teacher from Grace Orchard School, says the Science Centre's initiatives help him to better plan outings, as he usually has to take into account factors such as how crowded, noisy or dark a place is.
But he added that it would be good to have more visual signs and instructions to help special needs children understand the tasks at each exhibition as they tend to be strong visual learners, he says.
The Science Centre will continue to work with APSN and special education schools to improve its space for the special needs community, says Associate Professor Lim.
By the third quarter of next year, the centre hopes to carve out quiet spaces where visitors can retreat to when they feel overwhelmed.
It also plans to roll out programmes and exhibits guided by Universal Design for Learning principles, a framework to meet the needs of all learners, by the end of the year.
Ms Yip says: "We look forward to more organisations supporting the special needs community and hope initiatives like this can inspire Singaporeans to lead and advocate an inclusive society."