“Vibrating oral-facial massager” was the search term Ellen Sternweiler typed into her computer. Mother to three children with developmental differences, Sternweiler was desperately seeking a solution to her middle son’s severe sensory-seeking behavior. She didn’t know what the product was called, she just knew that he needed deep sensory input into his jaw. After three hours of sifting through a barrage of unwanted products, she had an epiphany. She decided to open The Sensory Kids Store.
“Being a parent to special needs kids is hard enough,” Sternweiler says. “Finding what you need for them should be easy.”
The Sensory Kids Store opened in 2011 inside Bellybum Boutique, Sternweiler’s now-shuttered Lincoln Square green parenting store. It was the first brick and mortar storefront offering sensory and developmental toys, therapeutic aids and clothing in a mainstream, inclusive setting. Sternweiler utilized her background in graphic design to make in-store and online shopping for items like weighted vests feel akin to picking out a pair of jeans. She wanted it clean, not clinical; bright, not boring. The response was astounding. People came from all over to see, touch and feel in person.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six children in the United States, ages 3-17, have one or more developmental difference. “Every child can benefit from a healthy sensory diet,” Sternweiler says. “Some just need more than others.” The Sensory Kids Store offers products that keep the senses in balance, so kids can regulate themselves and enhance their focus.
After living in Chicago for 24 years, the Sternweilers decided to move, to better meet the special education needs of their children. In 2014, they purposefully landed in Wilmette and could not be happier. “District 39 is fantastic,” says Sternweiler. “The special education support at Romona and Highcrest is unparalleled.” She speaks highly of Wilmette’s recreational sports community and inclusion at Northfield’s Temple Jeremiah.
“One of the biggest challenges as a mom in business is creating balance,” says Sternweiler. Relocated to Wilmette, The Sensory Kids Store now sells products online and through one-on-one product consulting to parents, schools, community groups and clinics.
Megan Kennedy, Skokie mother of two, says Sternweiler is one of the most helpful resources her family has encountered on their special-needs journey. “The opportunity to speak with Ellen personally is one of the most beneficial things we’ve been able to take advantage of.”
Sternweiler is a well-known sensory product expert. “My job is to curate, to make sure I have the best few items at a good value,” Sternweiler says. Sensorykidstore.com is organized into categories like seeing, hearing, talking and touching. Parents don’t need to learn a whole new language of terminology to shop. They just need to know what their child is seeking; then the choices can be easily drilled down from there.
Parents receiving a troubling diagnosis for their child are overwhelmed, confused and frustrated. Sternweiler helps filter data and provide support, as both a parent and a product specialist. “If your kid loves to be tickled but hates to be compressed, I’d suggest brushing,” explains Sternweiler.
Weighted and compression vests, seamless sensitivity socks and chew jewelry are some of her top sellers. Products like the Joki Swing or Big Red Top offer aesthetically pleasing and fun ways for kids to get the peace and quiet or gentle motion they crave.
Melinda Brooks, Chicago mom of two, highly recommends sensorykidstore.com’s streamlined selection. “It’s great for grandparents and gifts,” says Brooks. Her family’s favorite is Riverstones, an obstacle course that’s great for balancing, constructing, and rearranging patterns.
Sternweiler is also one of the main organizers of the Neighborhood Parents Network Developmental Differences Resource Fair and co-host of a monthly parent support group. Checktheir website for details. A North Shore parent support group is in the works.
“After years in graphic design, I needed to do something that was meaningful, and give back to the community,” Sternweiler says. “What could be better than helping support, educate and make life easier for my fellow parents struggling with the challenges of raising children with developmental differences. This is incredibly fulfilling.”