Raquel Noriega’s daughter Ava, who was diagnosed with autism at just 15 months, was about to turn 2 years old.
Of course, Noriega wanted to find a place to have a birthday party for her little girl.
She looked all over the island, but had trouble finding a fit.
“I couldn’t find a place suitable for her needs,” she explained. “Either there was too much stimulation, or it was too overcrowded. Bouncy places. Chuck E. Cheese’s. All that, forget it.”
Even the menu options at birthday places don’t often work for a child with autism.
“There’s nothing left for these kids,” she said. “And I’m one of those people that, if I don’t like something, I’m not going to sit around and wait for change to come.”
So she bought a business on West Main Street.
Right after throwing that 2nd birthday party in February at Pixie Dust in downtown Bay Shore — a place where Noriega was allowed the flexibility to customize her own party for Ava — she looked to buy it, so that she could help other families. Negotiations began almost immediately, she said.
She got the keys last month, and is now running a special needs-friendly party place and boutique that also offers sensory toys (think of things that are soft and texturized, with some lights) favored by children with autism.
“We do get foot traffic in here,” she said of Pixie Dust (she kept the name). “People come in, asking what this is. I tell them that we do kids parties, open play, sensory play, and we’re special needs friendly; I always mention that.”
Since taking over the business, which was a party place that catered to girls parties, Noriega has since been working to make it feel a bit more gender neutral, as well as special needs friendly.
As Noriega explained, children’s party places mostly prefer pizza, while most children with autism do not.
“It’s all about texture with these kids, and pizza is just too soft and messy,” she said. “99 percent of kids with autism, that I’ve found, prefer crunchy — chicken nuggets, really, over anything else.”
“So AJ’s Grilled Cheese will be providing the chicken and grilled cheeses,” she said.
Aside from parties — and Pixie Dust will continue to offer typical parties as well — Noriega is offering open play and will be hosting support gatherings for parents of special needs kids.
story continues below photo
“Even the sensory play, I find it not only helps the children, but the parents as well,” she said. “These kids are in therapy five days as week, but at the end of the day, the therapists go home and it’s the parents who are left. They need that support. They need to relate to one another, and feel that they’re not alone.
Thus far, she’s been spreading the word the old fashion way: word of mouth — mostly her mouth.
“I mention it to everyone I come in contact with,” she said. “And it’s funny, because everyone knows of someone that has a child with autism.”
What many don’t realize is that such kids are usually relegated to their homes for birthdays.
“Why should they be stuck in their house to have a party?” Noriega asked. “They should be able to go out and really enjoy themselves. If a child likes Legos, we’ll do that.
“Whatever the child is into, we’ll make it into a party.”
Caption: Raquel Noriega and her daughter Ava at Pixie Dust in Bay Shore Thursday. (Michael White)