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Published 18 April 2023

Auckland couple craved a space for Autistic children to be themselves, where parents don’t need to explain why their child is acting a specific way.

Maria and Mac were introduced to the Autism community when their son Mattias was diagnosed on the Autism spectrum at 16 months old.

The couple’s vision for a safe space sparked when a trip to Chipmunks Playland turned into a sensory overload for Mattias. He is now four years old.

“We knew we needed to create a safe, calm place for Mattias to be himself,” says Mac.

After 7 months of sweat and sometimes tears, in October 2022 Maria and Mac launched Spectroom Play Zone.

Auckland-based Spectroom Play Zone is an all-abilities play area for children on the Autism spectrum. For Maria and Mac, it is a place where neuro-divergent children and their whānau can find community.

Working previously as an outreach coordinator and trained play coach for Autism New Zealand. Maria understood the play skills to focus on and Mac saw the vision. With guidance from the Autism community the couple began building.

“We wanted to enhance hand and eye coordination, motor skills and nurture their senses.”

“We have a Snoezelen room, trampoline room, messy room, and of course our play zone.” Snoezelen is a large controlled multisensory room for a soothing and stimulating environment.

Spectroom are open Wednesday to Monday. They run 3 play sessions throughout the day. 10am to 12pm. 12pm to 2pm and 2pm to 4pm. With a limit cap on 10 children per session, parents can book out the entire play zone if they choose.

For the Autism community it can be hard to connect with people, de-stress and find somewhere sensory friendly. Creating a sensory-safe space is as much about supporting the supporters as it is for the children themselves.

“I will always embrace and encourage talking about the positives of being a parent of an Autistic child,” says Maria. “But sometimes we don’t sleep, we stop going to family functions. And we start isolating ourselves at home.”

Maria and Mac wanted a place for parents to not feel judged. A space for Autistic children to be themselves. And a space where parents don’t need to explain why their child is acting a specific way.

In the reception, you can find a space for parents to chat, drink tea, coffee or eat snacks while their children play. There are four tamper-proof gateways so parents with curious kids have nothing to worry about.

 “The most beautiful thing to see is parents exchanging phone numbers and seeing our community grow,” says Maria.

“If there is a parent that is new to the health and disability system, we have a printer, so I will print everything they need and help them on their journey.”

Since launching, Spectroom has been approached by FIFA, secondary schools, and the Auckland City Council. They have been asked to help build sensory rooms, provide sensory spaces at markets and book sessions for schools.

Maria and Mac's dream is now a reality.

“We want to see children connect with other children and then hope and pray they are going to be long life friends.”

“It fills our hearts to see Mattias coming and running into Spectroom after school. Of course, he has his own sessions after everyone leaves.”