Como Park Zoo sets aside time for those with sensory sensitivities
Saint Paul Pioneer Press - 8/18/2018
Aug. 18--For eight days a year, people of all ages with autism and sensory processing sensitivities -- and their families or caregivers -- get the entire Como Park Zoo & Conservatory to themselves for an hour before the zoo opens to the public.
The Como Zoo's sensory-friendly mornings started Aug. 5 and last from 9 to 10 a.m. There are two more this month -- Sunday and Wednesday -- and one each month through December. More days are being planned for 2019.
The Como Zoo has a partnership with the Autism Society of Minnesota (and hosts year-round camps with them). Como Zoo events coordinator Lindsay Sypnieski came up with the idea while Jessie Loftus, education specialist, reached out to the Autism Society.
Loftus says a zoo filled with visitors who share relatively similar needs -- rather than the chaos that comes with the general public -- makes a big difference to the families. Fewer visitors in the zoo reduces the stress in the space. Parking is more convenient -- also a plus for these families.
With input from the Autism Society of Minnesota, the zoo designed a sensory-friendly map that highlights areas of the zoo that typically have strong smells, as well as quieter spaces, giving visitors and their families a template. The website also features a narrative with pictures that families can see ahead of time so they know what to expect.
The website has a visual schedule board to print out and create at home before coming to the zoo, so families can create a plan to help reduce stress while exploring.
Loftus believes it has been much easier for visitors to make connections with animals when they don't feel overwhelmed by large, loud crowds.
She says the zoo has received a lot of feedback from visitors who say that this time set aside just for them has made them feel included and welcome.
The sensory-friendly early-entry program is for individuals of any age, for those on the autism spectrum or with sensory-processing sensitivities, as well as their families and caregivers.
IF YOU GO
* What: An opportunity for those on the autism spectrum and/or sensory-processing sensitivities to get into Como Zoo an hour before officially opening on select days
* When: 9-10 a.m., Sunday, Wednesday, Sept. 9, Oct. 14, Nov. 11 and Dec. 9. More dates are planned for 2019.
* Where: Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, 1225 Estabrook Dr., St. Paul
* Admission: Free
* Info: Resources and more information can be found at comozooconservatory.org/plan/#/sensory-friendly-information
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