News Article Details

Central Florida Zoo helps children with autism and other sensory needs

Orlando Sentinel - 7/18/2019

Jul. 18--For most young children, going to the zoo can be an exciting experience filled with an abundance of sights and sounds.

There are the monkeys swinging in their cages, a cacophony of the tropical birds squawking and lazy bears napping.

But for children -- and even adults -- who suffer from autism, PTSD or other sensory processing conditions, a visit to the zoo can be a difficult outing because of all the stimuli.

That's why the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens in Sanford is now offering visitors with autism and similar disorders special bags equipped with noise-canceling headphones, stress-relief fidget toys, verbal cue cards and wrist bands.

"We really want to make sure that we are accommodating to as many people as possible," said Sarrah LaSuer, a zoo spokeswoman.

The bags, which can be borrowed at admission windows, are designed to make the zoo a more welcoming experience for everyone, officials said.

Zoo staff and volunteers are also trained to recognize and help guests with sensory difficulties. Also, special signs are posted to designate quiet and loud areas. The zoo, at 3755 W. Seminole Blvd., has an annual attendance of about 280,000 visitors.

A future visitor will be the 5-year-old son of Longwood Mayor Matt Morgan.

Morgan praised the initiative and now plans to soon take his son, who has been diagnosed with autism, to the zoo.

"This is a huge thing," he said. "It's really cool....This shows me that the zoo is really thinking about everyone."

For many people with autism, all the sights and sounds -- and the crowds -- of a zoo can be difficult to process, Morgan said. That's why the headphones can help those with autism.

"The noise-canceling headphones are not just about getting rid of the noise, but it's also about the crowds," he said. "And that's what makes certain children uneasy."

Dr. Amy Fritz-Ocock, an autism disorders specialist at the UCF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, agreed.

"Every individual [with autism] is different and has different challenges," she said. "But some common triggers would include difficulty with crowds, feeling uncomfortable with the loud noises and unfamiliar sounds.... And they may have unusual smells at the zoo."

Fritz-Ocock also praised the zoo for offering the "autism-friendly" bags.

"They can be really helpful," she said. "And staff training is just as important."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 59 children is somewhere on the autism spectrum, which is a range of neuro-developmental abnormalities that can seriously impair a child's ability to communicate or interact with others. Many are hypersensitive to noise, touch or light.

Many children cope by having repetitive behaviors or precise routines. Because of that, parents may be wary of public outings with their children.

Morgan, for example, said his son couldn't cope with the sounds during Fourth of July outings to watch fireworks. However, this year, he put a pair of headphones on his son and he was able to enjoy the show, he said.

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"For the first time, he would point at the fireworks and laugh and smile," Morgan said.

In addition to the headphones, the wristbands in the zoo's bags will help staff identify kids who wander off from parents or a group, a common danger among children with autism.

The bags and staff training were provided by KultureCity, a nonprofit organization based in Birmingham, Ala., that creates welcoming and inclusive environments for children with autism and other sensory-related issues.

"Whether it's a zoo or a theme park, there are a lot of places and things that can be fun and happy for many children," Fritz-Ocock said. "But they also can be stressful places for others."

mcomas@orlandosentinel.com

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(c)2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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