DOVER -- Denis Bedard's son usually has no interest in domestic pets and often shies away from animals. But on a recent Sunday morning, he could be found cuddling kittens at the Children's Museum of New Hampshire.
Nathaniel Bedard, 8, and dozens of other children enjoyed the museum's many exhibits and a special visit from the New Hampshire SPCA and some of its animals, including guinea pigs, mice, bunnies and kittens.
Denis Bedard said it had been an "unbelievable" day for his family, including his wife and 2-year-old son, Nolan, as well as Nathaniel.
"We've never been able to do this," he said as Nathaniel cuddled a small, gray kitten in his lap with an NHSPCA volunteer close by.
In many ways, it seemed like an ordinary day at the museum as the children ran about the building, but for some families, the experience of bringing their sons and daughters to the museum was a triumph because all of them have at least one child with an autism spectrum disorder.
Since 2010, the Children's Museum of New Hampshire has offered a monthly program called "Exploring Our Way." On the second Sunday of each month during the school year, the museum offers free admission from 10 a.m. to noon to families who have a child with an autism spectrum disorder. The families are then free to stay at the museum when it opens to the general public at noon.
Fin McElroy of Barrington, a retired special-needs adoption worker, has been volunteering for the program since its inception.
"I think it's relaxing for the families, although not initially," she said.
She said parents of children with autism are used to being hyper-aware of the children's behavior. But on Exploring Our Way days, they realize, every family around them understands and does not judge.
"So it's relaxing once they realize it doesn't matter. That's why we have this program," McElroy said.
And it's great for the children, because of the program's emphasis on limited stimulation.
Children with autism often have trouble with sensory stimulation, noise and social interaction, making some typical public outings more challenging for families.
"They do have to share, because there are some favorite activities, but it's just easier for them," McElroy said.
Some families use the experience as a way to acclimate their children to the museum before returning for classroom field trips or other busier days.
"We really tried to design it so it would be . accessible to the whole spectrum of students with autism," Paula Rais, community engagement director with the Children's Museum, said.
Sara Gates of Raymond thought her son, Cace Stuchell, 3, would be overstimulated by the experience, but she was pleasantly surprised by his response.
Cace - who is not a big fan of making eye contact, especially with strangers, and was non-verbal before starting preschool - gravitated toward the impressive train table on the second floor and spent most of his time there. As he moved locomotives around the tracks, other children played around him.
"He won't really play with other kids, but he is not in a corner hiding from them," Gates said. "(The train table) is enough to draw him in and distract him."
Gates said being surrounded by other families who know what it is like to raise a child with autism makes her feel more comfortable if Case does get upset.
"Nobody is going to be looking at him. Everybody else here gets it," Gates said.
The program's theme for next Sunday is trains, and Gates said she and Cace definitely will be back for that. The program will then take a summer break and resume in October.
On Exploring Our Way days, a resource table is set up in the corner with information on autism and resources for families affected by the disorder, but, for the most part, the day is focused on everyone relaxing and having fun - and maybe, for just a little while, forgetting that their child is different from most others.
For more information the Exploring Our Way program, go to www.childrens-museum.org and click on "programs."