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Program helps those with sensory processing needs enjoy zoo more

Posted on 08 March 2018 by Calvin

Como works with Autism Society on handouts and maps to help families prepare before they get into zoo

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
All photos by JACKIE SCHERER and provided by COMO ZOO
For those with sensory issues, it can be hard to visit the zoo, but Como is launching a new program to change that.

Visitors who have family members on the autism spectrum or those with sensory processing needs will now be able to enter Como Zoo one hour before when doors open to the general public on selected Sundays and Wednesdays.

“Como has so much to offer when it comes to sights, sounds, smells, and temperatures, that it can sometimes be overwhelming,” remarked Noah Petermeier of Como Zoo and Conservatory. “We are so lucky to have such a dynamic facility that allows visitors to have unique learning experiences. Keeping that in mind, it is important for us at Como to acknowledge what we can do to assist those who might have challenges processing these sensory experiences.”

The goal of this new program is to provide families resources and tools to support them and make their time at Como more accessible.

“We can’t take away some of these sensory experiences like the smells and sounds, but what we can do is provide families with resources to help prepare them for their experience and set them up for success,” stated Petermeier.

“When we go to events like these, we find that knowing the staff and other visitors understand unique struggles can be helpful,” said Autism Society of Minnesota Education Specialist Lucas Scott, who added that it eases any embarrassment that might develop.

Scott is excited about the zoo’s commitment to hold these Autism Sensory Friendly Mornings monthly and make it a regular offering rather than a one-time thing.

Upcoming dates include Sundays, Mar. 11, Apr. 8, May 13, June 10, July 8, July 22, Aug. 5, and Aug. 19; and Wednesdays, June 13, July 11, July 25, Aug. 8 and Aug. 22.

Families can arrive between 9-10am on the selected dates. They should enter through the visitor center main entrance. The early entry days will include early access to zoo exhibits and zoo grounds, a sensory story time, and a quiet room where families can go to take a break if needed. Other partnering organizations will also have resources available for families.

According to Scott, there are many misconceptions out there regarding those with autism and sensory processing disorders.

“I generally think the easiest way to understand anyone is to recognize a person for who they are and not only by a disability label,” he pointed out.

The Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) has also worked with other organizations to provide sensory-friendly events, including Stages Theater in Hopkins and the Schubert Club.

“We’ve worked with Shoreview Library and many Dakota county libraries recently to create more sensory-friendly programs and options. We’ve even brought quiet rooms to events like Pride to create a little sensory-friendly bubble in an otherwise not sensory-friendly environment,” stated Scott.

Plan the visit
Prior to starting this new sensory-friendly program, Como met with representatives from AuSM to create a sensory map, social narrative, and visual schedule. They can be found at www.comozooconservatory.org under the “Plan your visit” tab.

These items help attendees prepare and plan before coming. The sensory map highlights strong smells and quiet spaces. A 20-page social narrative lists which types of animals live in each building or area in the zoo, expectations, and rules to follow in each area, and sensory information that might be important before entering.

Families can print out and modify a visual schedule resource for those who appreciate having a pre-planned visual schedule.

“The hope is that families will be able to better prepare for their visit by reading through the social narrative,” observed Petermeier. “They can look at the photos, read the text, understand expectations, and ease some uncertainties that their family might have before coming to visit the exhibits and zoo grounds.”

Excited about the new program
Como’s education department currently partners with the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) to host year-round camps for elementary and high school-aged students.

“We wanted to continue our outreach to these families and other families for a free, early access experience,” remarked Petermeier.

He added, “Our partnership with AuSM has been such a successful and celebrated program here at Como. I am so excited to offer this new program to a larger audience and provide this space and time for families. I am looking forward to learning from our visitors and using their suggestions to make the program more successful.”

So far, the program is doing what organizers set out to accomplish. As one visitor commented, “We have hesitated to come to Como in the past. We are so excited that you are offering this program.”

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