Visitors to the sensory-friendly shows at Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College in Champaign.

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When most people come to the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College for a show, they are greeted by a 50-foot dome and the impressive — but imposing — Zeiss star projector. As the programs begin, the lights get dimmer than they would in a movie theater, which may briefly create an environment that can be distressing for some guests, particularly if they are sensitive to significant sensory changes.

However, on Feb. 29, the Staerkel Planeterium took a different approach and hosted its first ever sensory-friendly shows with the goal of providing a more welcoming experience for members of the local community and beyond who are on the Autism spectrum, deal with sensory sensitivities or are very young.

The staff’s efforts were led by Tania Swigart, presenter for the planetarium for the last 10 years and a local preschool teacher who specializes in children with special needs. She first consulted with experts at The Autism Program at the University of Illinois to create a way to help our guests prepare for the experience of coming to the planetarium using “social stories,” which are essentially stories that use pictures and words to offer a step-by-step look at an event from beginning to end.

She then invited other local special needs educators and occupational therapy faculty to see a show in the dome and provide feedback on things such as appropriate light levels and sound settings for our shows. Finally, with the help of a Walmart Community Grant, Swigart organized the purchase of several sensory supports, including fidgets, stress balls, plush toys, seat cushions, weighted lap pads and compression vests. Additionally, downloadable versions of the social stories, as well as a sampling of the sensory supports, are available on the Educational Resources portion of the Staerkel Planetarium website.

Guests who experience a sensory-friendly show will begin with Swigart presenting a selection of relevant Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) cards on the dome, which reinforce the expectations for the show and aid in communicating with children with special needs.

Baskets holding the sensory supports are placed in convenient locations throughout the dome. Signs are posted to deter kids from getting too close to the star projector; exit signs are brighter, the dome is a brighter blue than usual, and the audio feeds from “One World One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure” and “Cosmic Colors” are a little quieter. The sensory-friendly shows also have limited seating to allow guests to move around more freely.

Like many other institutions of the Champaign County Museums Network, the Staerkel Planetarium will be closed until further notice due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, the staff is committed to contributing to the general wellness of the community by limiting public gatherings. When the planetarium is eventually reopened, the staff is happy to provide another experience catering to members of the East Central Illinois community who may have sensory or special needs.

When we receive the green light to reopen, the show schedule will be available via hotline at 217-351-2446 or on the website, Information about the Museums Network can be found at


— Sensory-friendly matinees of “One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure” and “Cosmic Colors” will return.

— Matinee shows play on Thursdays in June and July.

— Spanish shows of “Un cielo, un mundo: La aventura de Big Bird” and “Arqueoastronomía Maya” will be rescheduled.

Erik Johnson is the director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College. He can be reached at