Less than 12 months later they discovered another problem: Tyler needed a place where he could be with other kids but be free from social ridicule.
Autism is a brain disorder that strikes in early childhood and lasts throughout life. It usually affects emotion and social development, especially by inhibiting communication and social interaction.
Lohn and Levin's goal was to find a place where other parents would not judge Tyler as an out-of-control child, a place where he could freely interact with other children in a socially acceptable environment.
So when the Brentwood family went to visit Levin's parents in Chicago last year, they soon realized trips to places like the zoo or park were not suited to Tyler. "He would have sensory overload and have a meltdown," said Lohn. "We'd have to pack up everything and go home every time."
But when the family went to Kohl Children's Museum in Glenview, Ill., their son came
alive, and meltdowns disappeared. "The museum was not designed for special needs kids. Instead it had a universal design to appeal to all kids."
It's what gave her the idea to bring to Brentwood an interactive museum with a wide appeal for all kids to come together for interactive, educational play.
"From there I asked myself, 'What can I do to help special needs kids meet and play with other kids in the community?' Now it's becoming all about inclusion and enlightening other people about different needs - how can we bring all the kids together regardless of their abilities?"
She found a place in Berkeley called Habitot Children's Discovery Museum, but its operating hours were limited, its parking inadequate and its distance from far East County substantial. The couple considered how often they'd travel throughout the Bay Area for Tyler's doctor visits, and realized that they needed something closer.
Lohn single-handedly began raising public awareness about her Our Place Interactive Museum for children of all abilities by building a Web site, www.findawayfoundation.org.
She also applied to win a contest sponsored by American Express called The Members Project, where members could ultimately vote on the top five projects the credit card company would fund and bring to life. "Out of 7,000 entries," said Lohn, "our project was picked as one of the top 50."
They ultimately reached 33rd place, but it wasn't high enough to receive funding by Amex. It was high enough, however, to reach 245 people across the nation who didn't know them but believed in their museum.
Former Brentwood Mayor Barbara Guise believes in the museum project and would like to join forces with Lohn to secure a place such as the old Brentwood library to combine an art gallery with the interactive museum.
"I think it would make sense that if Steffany would like art-related exhibits for the youth, that we should partner up," said Guise. "We need an art gallery in Brentwood."
Guise knows the city is leaning toward building an expensive civic center, but she believes it would be much less expensive to use the existing, structurally sound 30-year-old library, which was built by donations and volunteers alone, than to tear it down and rebuild.
Lohn said the need is great for such a museum in far East County. Her research found that over 5,000 children with special needs reside in East Contra Costa County, and over 20,000 in all of Contra Costa County.
"In this community, autism has risen dramatically," said Lohn. "One out of 150 children are born with autism in the United States every day."
Her vision is to have an enormous indoor and outdoor facility with play structures accessible to anybody, including kids in wheelchairs, and offer a petting zoo with small animals, plus an aquatic center.
Lohn has already received licensing agreements from Kohl's Museum to implement some of its play structure designs in her museum.
Levin and Lohn's continued mission is to raise awareness, secure sponsorship from local businesses, receive grants and gain nonprofit tax exemption.
"All of our time is focused on Tyler's needs over ours," said Levin, a regional sales manager for Big Train Coffee, Tea & Beverages.
For Lohn, it's all about unity. "Hopefully by bringing awareness, we can celebrate these disabilities rather than judge it."