We know that visiting a new place, including a zoo, can be scary and overwhelming for families who have members with autism or sensory needs. In a park environment, guests can be vulnerable to intensified noises and become overstimulated by different sights, sounds, and smells. Here at Elmwood Park Zoo, we strive to ensure every guest has an enjoyable and memorable experience. In May 2018, Elmwood Park Zoo became the first zoo in the world to earn a certification as a Certified Autism Center. This certification was given by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). It is awarded to organizations that undergo training and a review process, in order to better serve individuals with autism or other sensory needs. With our certification, we have implemented many different procedures and policies to better cater towards each guest’s specific needs.
The majority of our staff at the zoo has participated in special training, which focuses on how to properly accommodate individuals with autism or sensory needs, as well as their families. IBCCES requires that at least 80 percent of the organization’s staff are trained according to their standards. This certifies our trained staff is knowledgeable and confident in dealing with any scenarios that may arise.
In addition to training, the zoo now offers many different features to better accommodate individuals with autism or other sensory needs. One major feature of the zoo is our dedicated Quiet Space. The space, which is located across from the Prairie Dog exhibit, has gate access and seating that allows individuals to come and relax if the other areas in the zoo get too noisy. Planters inside the space are filled with calming plants like rosemary, thyme, and mint. The planters are also fitted with fidget spinners to keep guests occupied. Elmwood Park Zoo also provides Quiet Mornings for guests to enjoy the zoo in a relaxing setting before it opens to the general public.
Thanks to Geiger and Crazy Aaron’s, guests also have access to complementary Sensory Packs that are filled with items for guests with special sensory needs. Included inside the Sensory Packs are items like noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, a stress ball, thinking putty, and laminated copies of Elmwood Park Zoo’s social narrative, sensory map, and sensory guide. The backpack is free for daily-use and can be requested at the admission windows.
All of these features are also outlined on the Zoo’s Accessibility and Amenities webpage. There you can find a digital copy of our accessibility map, sensory guide, and other tips for successfully navigating around the zoo. Elmwood Park Zoo understands the importance of providing a valuable, educational, and enjoyable experience for all of our guests. We hope to inspire other organizations to become a Certified Autism Center, in order to work towards a collective goal— to offer an inclusive environment for everyone.