Autism Warrior: Stephanie McMahon Inclusion Coordinator Inspires Others to Be That ‘Bright Light’ in the Autism World

Autism Warrior: Stephanie McMahon, accessibility and inclusion coordinator at Space Center Houston in Webster, Texas.

Autism Warrior: Stephanie McMahon Inclusion Coordinator Inspires Others to Be That 'Bright Light' in the Autism World

Location: Headquarters is located in Austin, Texas with satellite locations located all over North America and Europe and new programs starting in South America and Southern Africa.

Accomplishments: Stephanie said Space Center Houston has always been welcoming to guests with special needs, even when she was a lead education instructor. At that time, she was able to help support that commitment by leading informal training for her instructor colleagues on working with guests with disabilities, including autism. These workshops included techniques for special circumstances such as what to do if a child elopes, or how to differentiate instruction for different levels and styles of communication.

In 2017, Space Center Houston formed the accessibility and inclusion working group and hired Stephanie to be the coordinator for this program. The group is made up of representatives from each department from facilities to website. They get together to build on their mission to make space and STEM learning accessible to everyone. To that end, they continuously look for opportunities to grow and expand offerings for people with any accessibility needs.

In addition to her work with general accessibility, Stephanie helps the education department develop programs that are inclusive to all, and also programs that reach out to special populations such as individuals with early-stage Alzheimer’s, or camps such as Space Center University for the visually impaired and other events designed to provide quality learning experiences for guests with special needs.

As a mother of a child with autism with significant sensory issues, Stephanie said she understands how difficult it can be touring museums and learning centers. “Like many of us, my daughter and I have faced the stares and censure of those who do not understand why our children are flapping, vocalizing, spinning, or melting down from sensory overload. Yet, how can a child develop and grow if they are not given the opportunity to stretch their boundaries?” she asked.

For these reasons, Stephanie developed and began offering “Sensory Friendly Evenings,” with reduced lights, sounds, and crowds. “The response from people who had never before been able to visit was heartwarming, to say the least. However, we wanted to allow guests to feel respected and valued even during a typical busy day at Space Center Houston, so I added sensory backpacks, which have sound-canceling headphones, sunglasses, a fun space book, and other sensory items. I also put together the “Stellar Discovery Guide” which is a photo-guide/social story to help front-load, or pre-plan a visit, and vocabulary cards for low- or non-verbal guests that can also help with transitions and timelines,” she said.

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With all the positive feedback from guests, Space Center Houston felt it was time to reach out to IBCCES, to become a certified autism center. This took commitment from every department, including autism training given to the CEO and President, William Harris, to seasonal volunteers. As part of the credentialing process, IBCCES did an audit of the center, providing feedback and support, and helped develop sensory guides for the more challenging attractions. These efforts earned Space Center Houston the distinction of becoming the first IBCCES autism certified science learning center in the world.

“This is an exciting time at Space Center Houston. We have a proud history of welcoming anyone interested in science and space exploration, and we are working hard every day to improve on that legacy. I feel lucky to be a part of this,” Stephanie said.

Accomplishments: Stephanie said that throughout this journey she has found that most people were eager to learn about autism, but were simply not well informed. “I feel my biggest accomplishment has been to help change the perception of the face of autism and to broaden people’s understanding and compassion for those living on the spectrum,” she said.

Inspiration: “I know it sounds cliché, but watching my daughter grow from a small non-verbal child, sitting in the corner lining up cans of soup, to a vibrant and well-spoken young adult looking to her future plans. This inspires me every day,” Stephanie said.

Goals: On a personal level, Stephanie is working on learning ASL and Braille in her spare time. “Professionally, my teammates and I are working on expanding tactile experiences throughout Space Center Houston, creating new experiences for different populations, continued and targeted hiring of people with disabilities, and including new technologies to support universal design and inclusion for all guests,” she said.

Do you have any advice for families affected by autism?

“Whatever the size of your sphere of influence, be that ‘bright light’ that shows the world that living with autism can be a beautiful, positive experience. As you do, your sphere of influence will grow, and our message will change the world,” Stephanie said.


This article was featured in Issue 81 – Building Self-Esteem in Kids with Autism

Amy KD Tobik

Amy KD Tobik, Editor-in-Chief of Autism Parenting Magazine, has more than 30 years of experience as a published writer and editor. A graduate of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Amy’s background includes magazine, newspaper, and book publishing. As a special needs advocate and editor, she coordinates with more than 300 doctors, autism specialists, and researchers to ensure people diagnosed with autism receive the services and supports they need for life. She has two adult children and lives in the Carolinas with her husband.