First-of-its-kind Autism Museum Opens in Okemos

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Dylan Lees for ELi

Ribbon cutting for the Meridian Mall Autism Museum on Feb. 4, 2022.

Xavier DeGroat has experienced a life with autism every day for the last 31 years. Now, he invites people to truly take a walk through history and advocacy with his latest venture.

The Xavier DeGroat Foundation unveiled the Meridian Mall Autism Museum with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Feb. 4, to about 100 attendees. This makes it the first museum dedicated solely to autism awareness in the entire nation.

Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation, DeGroat, who is diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, spoke about what it was like in his adolescent days.

Dylan Lees for ELi

Xavier DeGroat, Founder and CEO of the Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation.

“It was totally challenging growing up being badgered to follow nuances that I had no understanding of, and sarcasm that over-stimulated me to misunderstand conversation out in hallways at school and beyond,” DeGroat says. “That gave more people the feeling that they can bully me and label me ‘R’ word.”

Through these challenges, DeGroat was inspired to create a place where others with similar experiences could feel safe, welcome, and understood.

“It only made me stronger and have the potential feeling in my heart to fight for others with autism,” DeGroat says. “Raising awareness and acceptance is my full-time job. It’s been concrete now at the Meridian Mall with my new museum.”

Dylan Lees for ELi

The Meridian Mall Autism Museum.

DeGroat considers the Meridian Mall location an “economic epicenter of the Mid-Michigan area,” with equal distance from MSU, Lansing, and a nearby highway to travel east to Detroit. It was an area he spent a lot of time in, between advocating at the State Capitol, and being mentored by Mark Dantonio at MSU Football practices. 

It was these partnerships and relationships that made the museum possible.

“Our Golden Sponsor was Coach Mark Dantonio and Silver being MSU Federal Credit Union, Boji Group and many others, with heavy support from WLNS TV-6 Connecting with Community,” DeGroat says.

The idea of the museum has been in the works since around 2018, but DeGroat explained that the pandemic and shutdowns actually made him really fixate on the idea’s potential.

The goal is “to get families and children back out in the public again,” he says. “I do not see enough families with children or adults on the spectrum get exposed to reality with consumerism and entertainment. However, a mall is transitioning to being beyond retail, but to entertain, which is exactly what LAUNCH Trampoline Park and High Caliber and Meridian Mall are doing as I partner with them.”

Dylan Lees for ELi

Visitors experience the Meridian Mall Autism Museum.

With a mission to ensure equality for those on the spectrum, the museum and foundation are both dedicated to increasing awareness and acceptance of people with autism, providing economic opportunities to people with autism, and utilizing innovative employment approaches.

In the future, the museum has plans to host a Story Time for National Autism Awareness Month in April, performing a series of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, something DeGroat and many other generations grew up with. 

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