A vacation to an amusement park can be a daunting venture for any family, but for a family of a child with special needs, that trip may seem like an impossible dream.
You're always on edge," said Jerry Turning of Tinton Falls, New Jersey. "There's a lot of sensory bombardment that our kids endure when they go to a place like this. Whether its the noise or the crowds or waiting in line, it's always challenging."
Turning's son, Eric, has autism. Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder characterized by social, communication and behavioral delays or abnormalities. It affects about one in 59 children, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is four times more common in boys than girls.
Turning says it's important to find a theme park that is accepting and understanding, and for Eric, that's Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.
Turning says 14-year-old Eric can decompress and let loose in the "Sesame Street"-based park without fear of being judged. His son is able to hug Cookie Monster and receive a warm hug back even if, by societal standards, he should have moved beyond the characters.
At Sesame Place, his son feels understood and accepted. Although he may fidget in line or make funny noises, he faces no judgment from park staff or fellow visitors.
For Turning, the "cherry on top" is the new designation as a Certified Autism Center, which makes Sesame Place the first theme park in the world to receive that distinction from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. To earn the certification, the board requires at least 80% of a park's staff to complete rigorous training on autism sensitivity and awareness.
According to Meredith Tekin, the board's vice president of sales and marketing, "the Certified Autism Center designation is awarded to premier organizations around the globe who have completed rigorous training and meet the highest industry standards, including onsite reviews to make grounds and activities more accommodating as well as staff awareness and sensitivity training." This designation gives parents, families and individuals "peace of mind" and "empowers staff," which improves everyone's experience, she said.
In addition to staff training, Sesame Place has created quiet rooms: small, dimly lit spaces with comfortable armchairs and sensory bead mazes on the walls to provide a break from the stimulation. The park also offers noise-canceling headphones as well as designated "low-sensory zones" along a parade route and in theaters. Guests who may struggle with standing in line or require special assistance boarding a ride can also use a fast pass called Abby's Magic Queue.
However, what may be most important for parents like Turning is a planning website with a sensory guide and "social story" that tells visitors exactly what to expect.
They're "simple things," Turning said, such as "what it looks like to stand in line or what you're going to have to do to order lunch, just what it looks like, so the family can prepare the individual beforehand. That's important for our guys, so they know what they're getting into and what we're going to have to ask of them."
That sentiment is echoed by Lisa Goring of the advocacy group Autism Speaks. She says that it's important for theme park staff to understand the challenges someone with autism may face and that small adjustments such as extended hours, fast passes and visual guides at concession stands can make all the difference.
Inclusivity across the country
Fortunately for families in need of a break all over the country, Sesame Place isn't the only theme park making strides to increase access and inclusivity for children with special needs.
Theme parks generally offer guides on their websites to help guests with disabilities navigate their parks, and increasingly, parks are including sensory guides for visitors with autism and other cognitive disorders.
Autism Speaks has seen a significant increase in the availability of quiet rooms and low-sensory areas, as well as a significant rise in autism-friendly events, over the past several years.
Legoland near Orlando, Florida, works with autism specialists to train staffers in sensitivity and awareness. It has also partnered with local chapters of Autism Speaks to ensure accessibility for visitors on the autism spectrum. The park provides no-cost Blue Hero Passes to help children who may have difficulty waiting in line and hosts special days for children with autism and their families.
Disney Parks, including Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida, are also equipped with quiet rooms and provide extensive planning guides. Disney offers a team that caters to guests with disabilities and provides personalized service for visitors in need of a little extra help. And for those who need it, special fast passes are available.
Morgan's Inspiration Island Water Park in San Antonio is designed to be fully accessible for guests of any ability. This park, designed for visitors with physical and/or cognitive challenges, provides free admission to special needs guests.
And it's not just theme parks recognizing the need for expanded accessibility for individuals with cognitive disorders; resorts are also getting in on the game.
Beaches Resorts, which also partners with Sesame Workshop to offer shows and activities, is the first resort company to be credentialed by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. According to Liz Kaiser, Beaches' partnership marketing director, all staff members at every level have been trained in autism sensitivity and awareness. The resorts also provide a variety of customized services for families, including culinary concierge services to aid with dietary issues, a one-on-one aide, "quiet check-in," and private transfers.
The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards has also credentialed Grand Palladium Bávaro Suites Resort & Spa in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, as well as the Sheraton Park Anaheim near Disneyland.
The Georgia Aquarium is also an Autism Center, and Space Center Houston was designated as such last month.
'Those are the ways memories are made'
Autism advocacy groups and education services are working with venues across the country on autism awareness and sensitivity. Families are increasingly able to attend sporting events, like MLB and NBA games, theaters, museums and zoos with a little less worry.
"It can mean the world to have a family to have this type of accommodation," Goring said. "We hear from families where they've been able to participate in events that are autism-friendly, and it was the first time they could go as a family to do those activities."
Goring stresses the importance of autism-friendly events because "those are the ways memories are made."
For Turning, it's the little things that have the biggest impact: "None of this took a lot; it just took an interest in our lives and a curiosity about our typical day, and it means all the difference to my family and a lot of families like mine."