Parent Perspective: The zoo is a perfect outing for kids with autism

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by: Nicole Thibault, CATP – Magical Storybook Travels

When my son was first diagnosed with Autism, even leaving the house was a challenge. My son’s meltdowns often happened in public, where sensory overloads of sights and sounds would often overwhelm him. Even a quick trip to a grocery store could lead to a meltdown.

Personally, I’m not one to just stay home, so we started out small with our family activities. Trips to the playground, trips to the library for reading time… places we would exit quickly and quietly if a meltdown occurred. But our favorite place to explore after the autism diagnosis was our local zoo. We bought a family membership and would often go for an hour or two, just to get used to the routine of a trip to the zoo.

The zoo is a perfect outing for kids with Autism – there is a low chance for sensory overload, and you can walk around to the exhibits at your own pace. You can bring your own snacks and drinks for those kids on a GF/CF diet or those with a limited food repertoire.  You can avoid areas that may be too overwhelming for your child.

Animals can also be a great introduction to kids who love “fun facts.” We spent time exploring the exhibits and learning the names of all of the animals. Then my sons and I would head to the library and check out books about those animals of interest, so we could learn more fun facts about the animal’s natural habitats, diets, and life cycles.

That’s why I’m so excited to see that two zoos – the Santa Barbara Zoo and Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, Pennsylvania – have become Certified Autism Centers. Certified by IBCCES (The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards), these zoos are making sure that they are accommodating to ALL families. The Santa Barbara Zoo even has sensory backpacks for rent for the day. For a $5 rental, guests of the Zoo can borrow a backpack full of fidget and squeeze toys, noise-canceling headphones, and a laminated scavenger hunt.

I can only hope that more and more zoos follow suit and become Certified Autism Centers. Zoos can be a great introduction for families with children with Autism who want to travel.