PITTSBURGH — A new play area in Zelienople may look like a regular playground, but for the kids at Glade Run Lutheran Services it is so much more.

The playground, which had its public grand opening this week, is one of less than a dozen in the country designed specifically with children who have autism in mind.

“As there are more and more kids being diagnosed (with an autism spectrum disorder), it’s more and more important for us to have an appropriate environment for them,” said Sheila Talarico, executive director of the Glade Run Foundation.

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The playground first opened for about 60 students in the autism program at St. Stephens Lutheran Academy in May. But on a recent afternoon, a dozen kids from Glade Run’s specialized adventure camp for children with autism, explored the area, some running straight to the Jacob’s ladder and others to the swings.

Even an afternoon shower couldn’t dampen their curiosity as a group of five kids took shelter in the fort, occasionally volunteering one of their peers to brave the rain and fetch ripe blueberries from the bushes lining the fences.

Those blueberries, Talarico said, are part of what sets the playground apart most.

The fruit bushes are just one of the many uses of nature in the design. Daylilies, lavender and rosemary plants are clustered near the benches and other quiet areas.

“Every child with autism is so different,” said Christopher Smith, program manager of Autism Educational Services at Glade Run Lutheran Services, a non-profit that provides provides educational, mental health, autism and cultural services to more than 3,000 individuals every year.

For this reason, Smith said, the park is geared toward providing more or less sensory output, depending on a child’s needs. The plants can be calming while also engaging the senses.

On the flip side, loud noises, bright colors and a lot of activity — all common to most playgrounds — can cause sensory input overload for some children, so the playground was designed without bright colors, Talarico said.

Smith also said children with autism often have the feeling of an added heaviness on their joints and muscles, so a lot of the equipment provides relief by helping them stretch out.

Bobble riders, for example, are designed for two people to ride opposite each other, almost like a teeter-totter, while improving balance, coordination and upper and lower body strength.

The play area, which is about the size of half a football field, also encourages socialization because many of the pieces of equipment require at least two people to operate, Talarico said.

“The culture has improved tenfold since the sensory playground was put into place,” said Smith, who added he has noticed a decrease in negative behavior since the space allows kids who tend to be more aggressive to let off steam by running around the circular pathway in the center of the park-like area or to find a quiet place to sit and calm down.

“In a typical playground, kids and adults might be less accepting of the behavior of kids with autism,” Talarico said. But here, that is not the case.

Karey Day, the mother of 8-year-old Evan, who attends St. Stephens and the day camp, said the quiet places are especially beneficial to her son.

“He has trouble getting along with other children and … here there are places for him to go to get away from different stresses,” said Day. “Glade Run has helped my child a lot, and this is just another bonus.”

The playground was funded primarily by donations from individuals, corporations and congregations.

The park is open and free to the public from 4 to 8 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends by reservation.

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