When they struggled with finding the right products to facilitate learning in their classrooms, special needs educators Justin and Jeremy Whitley opened their own store that caters to the functional needs of children and adults with disabilities.
When Jeremy Whitley was a special education teacher at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville, he often went online to buy a variety of items for his students.
There’s nothing unusual about online shopping these days. However, he quickly learned his students didn’t find every item he bought useful. Many of his students were on the Autism spectrum, and he found special comfort items were crucial to creating a comfortable learning environment. But without the opportunity to try an item before buying, it often was a situation of trial and error, one that without a return policy became cost-prohibitive.
Whitley taught special education for four years and saw that the needs of autistic and special needs students often are overlooked. His brother, Justin Whitley, also worked as a special education assistant in classrooms in Shelby County Schools. The two felt they could create something unique in the community that addresses the functional needs of children and adults with disabilities.
In March 2016, the brothers opened Sensory World Memphis, a retailer that focuses on making sensory resources easily accessible. It’s a unique offering; Sensory World Memphis is the only such retailer in Tennessee as well as the Mid-South area.
“We saw the need in the community that the autism and special needs community is severely overlooked,” Jeremy Whitley said. “I had to make things for students, like weighted blankets and order things online. Sometimes it worked and sometimes not.
Every detail of the interior of Sensory World in Bartlett was chosen to be soothing to people experiencing Autism.
And not all companies had refund policies. So my brother and I created this concept so parents and students could come in and try out the items. We wanted to give them those hands-on experiences.”
The business is at 2965 N. Germantown Road in The Shops at Wolflake in Bartlett. It’s near the Wolfchase area, but purposely located outside of a busy retail setting like a mall.
“The mall is a stressful place for the child especially if autistic, and they don’t like loud noises,” Jeremy Whitley said. “We didn’t want to be in a mall. Our store is pretty much all on display so they can play with and try out things before making the purchase. It’s a relief for the parents to shop here.”
The experience for customers is simple. Justin Whitley said it was important to create a judge-free environment where parents can shop in comfort, and their children can touch and try out every product.
There is a large selection of sensory items available in the store, including ones to help with assisted eating, development, sensory seating and weighted items. The biggest sellers are oral motor stimulation tools that provide ways to help users practice and develop chewing and biting.
Items such as chewable jewelry and pencil toppers provide oral sensory stimulation in a discreet way, especially for those students who grind their teeth or chew on clothing or pencils.
The Whitleys make the weighted blankets, which come in various weights that are removable so the blankets can be washed. The blankets have a cocoon effect; children and adults who have trouble sitting use the blanket to calm down.
Picking what items to sell in the store wasn’t too difficult for the Whitley brothers.
“We watched our kids in the classrooms for about four years and learned the things they needed the most,” Justin Whitley said.
It took that four-year process to make the store possible. It all started in 2013 with an Autism Awareness 5K, which help fund the store’s first two years of operation. The 2015 race raised funds for Extended Family Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides services and support to families and individuals affected by mental and behavior disorders. The 2016 race benefited Memphis Joy Prom, and this year’s race will help Hope Church create a special needs sensory room.
Even though Sensory World Memphis is the only brick-and-mortar store with this specific focus in the area, the Whitleys don’t just sit back and watch customers walk through the doors. The business is registered with area school systems and the brothers continue to cultivate relationships with therapists to spread the word.
The brothers are the only employees at the store and don’t have plans to expand, although Jeremy Whitley said they’d like to ultimately open a second store in Brownsville or Jackson to cater to customers from West Tennessee.
Putting the products in the hands of those who ultimately will use them is important, but Justin Whitley said the shopping experience is made easier because of the sensory friendly environment of the store.
“The kids don’t want to leave,” he said. “The lights are calming, there’s calming nature music and kid videos playing on TV. Some kids stem off different things so we have Lego tables and other things for them to do while their parents shop. Parents don’t have to worry about their child.”