NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - For some children with autism, activities like going to a concert or park can be terrifying. But the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium are trying to change that, making the experience for all children just a little brighter.
Five-year-old Gabriel Gonzales loves animals. But up until recently, going to the zoo with his family proved a real challenge.
“He kind of has issues with crowds, sometimes noise,” said Gabriel’s mom, LaTesha, who said apprehension about social situations has led to behavioral issues. “We know that there’s a possibility of a tantrum, there’s a possibility of a freak-out.”
Diagnosed with autism a year ago, Gonzales' family finally understood why he didn’t always enjoy the same activities that other kids his age usually do.
“For us, we know he’s just processing it differently,” LaTesha said.
Working with a therapist helped, and so did the zoo’s effort to accommodate children with autism.
“One of the reasons that families were reluctant to come to the zoo is that sometimes this is overwhelming, whether it’s sound, it’s light, it’s waiting in line,” said zoo Education Projects Direct Brenda Walkenhorst.
Gabriel’s day at the zoo starts with picking up his sensory bag.
“Inside we have noise-cancelling headphones, we have fidgets, and then we have your storyboard in case you’re feeling something and want to point to a picture,” Walkenhorst said.
They’re simple tools that experts have shown will make children feel more at ease. For the kids who want to use the headphones, signs help guide parents as to when they might be needed. Several years ago, the zoo and aquarium started the process of becoming autism sensory inclusive. One of the requirements for the zoo to achieve certification was training for zoo staff. Everyone from zoo keepers to food vendors and even maintenance crew members is trained in how to interact with autistic children.
This year, the zoo became one of only 10 in the country to receive the distinction. The aquarium is the first in the country. For Gabriel’s mom, the efforts the zoo made provide her 5-year-old with resources to help him better enjoy the experience. LaTesha Gonzales said having a comfort object makes a world of difference.
“Especially for Gabriel, having something that he can come back to makes him feel comfortable," she said. "So if we’re walking around, everything is new, but we have this little bag. Doesn’t matter if it’s the same stuff up in there, I can open it, ok, I know what’s in there, I played with it, so close it and we’re done.”
The zoo also offers weighted blankets for kids in strollers to bring them a sense of comfort. Another tool for parents is that they can walk their children through what a day at the zoo would be like using the social story on Audubon’s website. There, they can map out what a child can expect, reducing fears.
Experts from LSU, Tulane and a non-profit that specializes in autism awareness all helped design the tools the zoo and aquarium use. The goal is simple.
“We want the whole zoo to be a community where you can come anytime you want, and we’re able to adapt to your needs,” Walkenhorst explained.
LaTesha Gonzales said zoo days have become more enjoyable. At the end of the day, she too has one simple wish: for her son to enjoy the same things in life the way other children do. And she’s grateful that this is one of the few places in the country where that’s been made a little easier.
The zoo and aquarium also offer events each month for children with special needs. Sensory Sundays are days when the facility is open early to families and where children receive extra attention and specialized tours to help them enjoy the experience.