Isolated. Forgotten. Overwhelmed. These are emotions that families with kids with special needs often feel, shares Sarah Young. She would know. She and her husband Allan have three boys, all with autism. They found it harder and harder to get out and do things with other families. They found that even churches were not set up to handle the needs of their boys. That’s when they felt led to start Autism Acres in Rochester, a space for kids with special needs to run, play, meet others and most importantly, be themselves. And it’s offered free of charge.
“Throughout the years our friend pool kept getting smaller because our kids couldn’t connect with theirs and they couldn’t relate to our struggles,” shares Sarah. “That combined with the stress of going places with special needs kids, being overwhelmingly exhausted, not wanting to burden others, or our kids being left out or bullied at these get togethers, we constantly felt uncomfortable and overwhelmed. Therefore, we started saying ‘No’ to doing things and we slowly stopped being invited to things. We realized we can’t be the only ones feeling this alone and Autism Acres could give us an opportunity to really serve and love these families and help them make connections in a safe and judgement free environment.”
Sarah and Allan both grew up in central Oregon. Allan joined the military upon graduating high school, and has two more years until he retires. They were moved around a little, to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, before being stationed at JBLM. Sarah homeschools their three boys and, during her free time, set to work on their dream for Autism Acres.
It was just last year, in October 2021, that they received their 508 (c)1 nonprofit status for Autism Acres, fulfilling their dream of creating a space where parents could relax and their children could be themselves in a non-judgmental environment. In March 2022, a childhood mentor of Sarah’s donated the funds for the wheelchair accessible play structure.
Play Space for Kids with Special Needs in Thurston County
“Outings are incredibly stressful for special needs parents. You never know what meltdown or stressors you might have to deal with and never know what stares, glares, or insensitive comments one might receive on top of that,” shares Sarah. So, Sarah and Allan created Autism Acres.
The place consists of their fully-enclosed barn, so parents don’t have to worry about children running off like they would in a public space. Inside the barn is a bounce house, trampoline, sandbox, chalkboards and more for children to play with. The barn is situation on five, fully-fenced acres. They also have four dome swings outside that kids can use. And there are some farm animals including goats.
All this is available free of charge. Just don’t apologize. “We have a quote that we use a lot, ‘We do not want to hear, “I’m sorry.”’ Your kid dumped rocks everywhere, they dumped a bin of cars, they are making loud noises and flapping their hands. Regardless of their behavior we do not want parents to apologize for who their kids are. Let them play how they want to play. Things are replaceable and cleanable. Their noises and hand flapping are who they are, so whatever the behavior, we do not want parents to apologize.”
Parents appreciate the space. “We get multiple comments per play day: ‘It is so nice to have a safe space for my kid to be themself without stares or judgement,’ or, ‘I am so glad I do not have to worry about them running off,’” shares Sarah. The barn has benches for parents to sit on that are situated with a good view of everything, allowing them to have some social time while their child plays.
Sensory-Friendly Events for Children with Special Needs
Autism Acres has 15 spots open during their daily time periods. To sign up, just message Sarah on the Autism Acres Facebook page with how many children you have, one spot per child – parents don’t count. She is now breaking up the groups by age, such as 2-6 and 7-12. “It is not a set in stone age definition, but more of a suggestion if you are hoping your kid can connect with someone their age,” she adds.
In addition, Autism Acres has Youth Night every other Saturday night for teens with special needs ages 13-18. Pizza is provided and the kids can play air hockey, ping pong, foosball and cornhole. They also have a zipline they can use, a giant LEGO table and the dome swings are available for their use as well. “My husband and I usually play games with them, build LEGO and just get to know them and hang out,” says Sarah. “Parents do stay, but usually they end up talking somewhere while their kids get a chance to make some friends and meet new people.”
They also offer their space free for birthday parties for kids with special needs. The parents can bring whatever decorations and food they wish. Sarah understands that often children with special needs have a hard time getting people to come to their parties, so they step in and make sure there are people there to wish them Happy Birthday. “We provide the fun space, sometimes we help to gather up friends to attend, in these cases we bring the birthday child a gift!” she explains.
Autism Acres usually closes during the winter months, so check their Facebook page for updates. Want to volunteer? They are working on getting volunteers together for next spring. Also, as a 508(c)1, all donations are tax deductible. For more information, visit the Autism Acres website.