This January, eight year old Children's Museum member Spencer Hahn was named a 2014 Great American Museum Advocate by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Spencer was one of two youth selected from nominations submitted by museums across the country. This week he's joined by more than 300 museum professionals for Museums Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C., where he'll help to make the case for federal support of museums, showing the profound ways museums are serving Americans. This blog is a reprint of Spencer's original nomination—a story that is truly extraordinary. As AAM president Ford W. Bell stated, "In Spencer's case, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis literally changed his life, and the lives of his family. What better public service can there be?"
They thought he would never talk. They thought he would never walk. Today, eight year old Spencer Hahn is proving them all wrong as he runs into a museum to throw his arms around his favorite dinosaur and give him with a great, big hug. You see, this rambunctious little boy loves theater, a big, cuddly, green dinosaur mascot named Rex, and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. His mother credits these three things with changing her little boy's life forever.
It all started when Spencer suffered a stroke in-utero. Complications led to life-long challenges. “Spencer experienced a neonatal stroke, which induced symptoms of cerebral palsy, grand mal seizures, and neurobehavioral difficulties felt to be Autism Spectrum Disorder,” said Dr. Luis Escobar, medical director of Medical Genetics and Neurodevelopment at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St.Vincent. “Children with these diagnoses experience many physical mobility limitations that required significant rehabilitation services, and often need behavioral therapy to address social skills.”
"When I first got the diagnosis and saw the MRI, I'm not going to lie, I literally sat in a corner for 24 hours and cried my eyes out,” said Erica Hahn. “Then I got up and made a plan. The plan was never about how to get him to talk or how to get him to walk. I knew I didn't have control of such things. I knew that he needed to feel happy and safe. I threw out the baby books and made the choice to let Spencer decide when/if he was going to walk or talk. I focused on how he could be happy and that meant visiting the museum. We went weekly. Turns out I was right—provide children with an environment where they feel happy and safe, and add to that stimulation- and milestone-building museum adventures, and you find success. It was never an option not to be happy, it was always an option to walk or talk. I am grateful that he chose to do both."
About the time he was one year old, Spencer’s mother decided to actively do something to help her son by bringing him to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis for stimulation.That's when something extraordinary began to happen. Spencer responded. He took his first steps in the Playscape exhibit—in fact, his mom claims most of Spencer’s “firsts” happened at the museum, including his first successful attempts at climbing and his first words, which were spoken near the carousel. Those are just the tangible outcomes. Spencer’s mother believes her son also developed his confidence through personal interactions with staff members at the museum. “The Museum and its staff have given him a much more important milestone....they teach him to be confident, they teach him to love himself even when things are hard. And, they teach him how to be a good friend—all because of the way they are with him. Confidence is a huge milestone and one I see emerging more and more every time we visit,” said Erica Hahn.
The interactions with the acting staff have had a profound effect on Spencer. Every time he visits the Lilly Theater within the museum, he stays after to talk to the actors about their performances, get autographs, and have his picture taken with them.
“Spencer is definitely our biggest fan,” said Krista Layfield, manager of Lilly Theater. “Whenever he and his family come to our performances they are always early so they can get their favorite seats in the front row. During the show we will often see Spencer performing right along with the actors by dancing in the aisle and singing along with the music. The actors and I feel fortunate and blessed to know Spencer and his family and we love to see the positive impact all of or our hard work is making in his life.”
“Many children thrive with a consistent routine that allows repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities,” said Cathy Southerland, Director of Early Childhood Education. “Providing clear beginnings and endings is often beneficial. The Children’s Museum provides the reassurance to children that they will be able to enjoy many of the same sights and sounds at the beginning of each visit—Bumblebee and the Water Clock, for example—and at the end of each visit, like the End of the Day Parade.”
“For patients with autism and physical limitations, it's imperative that they receive early intervention and stimulation. Activities such as participation in social groups and educational experiences with organizations like The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis have helped Spencer to develop social skills, improve attention and gain awareness of his environment,” said Dr. Escobar. Dr. Escobar also said that as patients with autism and physical limitations receive early intervention and stimulation, like Spencer has, their health typically improves over time. In light of Spencer’s response to medical treatment and behavioral therapy, Dr. Escobar believes that Spencer’s needs will decrease as he gets older.
Believe it or not, Spencer's very favorite part of his day is when it is about to end. That is when the museum hosts its End of the Day Parade to usher families out as the museum is about to close for the day. That is when the little boy who was never supposed to walk or talk, marches down the ramp, through the museum, alongside his hero - Rex (Rex is the big, green, dinosaur Children’s Museum mascot who leads the parade). Spencer’s mom says her son literally wants to be Rex when he grows up. She chuckles as she shares there have been multiple times they have visited the museum when it opens just to see Rex, left to run errands and then returned to join Rex in the parade.
“Quite simply Spencer would not be who he is, without Rex and the rest of the museum staff and that is not an exaggeration. We are lucky to live in Indianapolis and be part of such an amazing place. I like to think of Spencer's life like a book that he will someday write. Each chapter will be a person or place that has meant something to him. I hope my chapter reads, ‘She always did the best she could.’ I can only imagine that the chapter on the museum might be as simple as a smiley face - happiness is simple. Rex is his happiness!”
When Spencer completed his 100th End of the Day Parade, Children’s Museum staff members made a special banner with pictures of Spencer and Rex and asked him to lead the parade. He was so excited he cried and told his mom, "Mom these are happy tears because my museum loves me!"
“It's true,” said Dr. Jeffrey H. Patchen, president and CEO, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. “Our whole staff loves him. This little boy is an adorable reminder that the things children and families learn in a museum and the people they meet have the power to transform lives. Spencer truly does serve as an inspiration to us as he is a testament to strength, courage and determination and we are proud to call him our friend.”