While amusement parks are a source of a great time for many families all throughout the year, families who have members with autism have a bit of a harder time. With additional planning required, and occasionally not having the parks being sufficiently accommodating toward those with autism, many families have decided to simply avoid the parks.
However, now there is a significant move among many leading amusement parks to become more autism-friendly, changing the experiences of thousands of families across the country.
Desmond is seven years old, and has autism. Often his family will visit amusement parks, as his older brothers is a huge thrill seeker and loves roller coasters; however, the crowds are difficult for him to deal with. Also, he has trouble remaining patient throughout the long day.
Desmond's mother Jerry-Ann says, "it's so overwhelming. There's so many different sounds and smells, and then there's a lot of people. Sometimes for them it's just too much." His father Christian further explains the difficulty, "usually we end up having to split up." That is, if they manage to make it throughout the trip without leaving due to the difficulties.
Jerry-Ann is often disheartened that they cannot experience normal family outings as others can, mentioning, "we want to be able to do normal everyday things that people do with their kids, with both kinds, not just with one." While it would be great for the family to be able to enjoy the experience together, Desmond's tantrums throughout the day make the situation almost unmanageable.
Edaville Family Theme Park
However, thanks to the new move by many theme parks to become more friendly towards those with autism, they can enjoy the excursion with every member of their family. The Edaville Family Theme Park is one they enjoy, as it has aspects that cater to Desmond such as a quiet room, to offer a break from all of the excitement if it becomes overwhelming. Within it, the room is cooled, slightly darkened, and offers puzzles, blankets, and books. This allows the family to take a little pause instead of having to go all the way home and end the day.
However, these theme parks offer more than just a quiet room, the whole park is designed to avoid triggering those with autism. There are velvet covered walls throughout the lines, which is soothing to many, including Desmond. They also encourage small toys to act as a distraction during the lines. They even offer fidget spinners in the line to relax children.
The rides themselves also attempt to give alternatives for those with autism, such as a 1940s-era train ride that offers a quiet car to benefit families who need it. Bathrooms throughout the park are also quieter intentionally, with manual toilets and paper towel dispensers to avoid unnecessary noise from automatic ones.
Some of the favorite characters from beloved television shows, books, and movies are not simply the Looney Tunes characters available at Six Flags, or the many Disney characters that can be visited at any of the Disney Theme Parks, but Thomas the Tank Engine, who is the star of the ride at Edaville.
Cherie Daly confirms children's love of Thomas the Tank Engine, saying, "my son is fascinated by Thomas." Thomas Land is a crucial part of the Edaville Family Theme Park. Cherie works at the theme park, and it has given her a whole new way to look at raising a son with autism, as well as what businesses can do to accommodate children like him.
As soon as she began working at the park, she approached the general manager to inform them about the experiences autistic families have when visiting theme parks, and how they could be more accessible. By offering insight into how autistic children are prone to experiencing sensory overload at the parks, and, as a result, act out in a way they cannot control, Cherie was able to depict the importance of aiding these families. Fortunately, Edaville was not only willing, but looking forward to accommodating them. She explained their willingness, "everything I suggested, our general manager said, 'we'll do it.'"
While certain intimidating experience of theme parks are nearly impossible to change, such as crowds, noises from rides, and screams from those on the rides, offering a quiet room was a welcome addition to the park, largely thanks to Daly. She explains the value of small things like blankets within the quiet room, "the weighted blanket is perfect to help [autistic children] get back to balance." The quieter bathrooms? Daly also inspired this, even helping them with the designs. She explains how the noise behind automatic hand dryers or toilets would trigger her son, "in my experience, one of these things would set [my son] off, and it would take me an hour to calm him down." The bathroom offers manual controls as well as being painted a shade of blue that many find calming.
Daly has now been working at the park for three years, and continues to be an advocate both for her son and other families that might like to enjoy the park. She shows the importance of taking advantage of your workplace for good, and inspires many across the country to push for better standards and levels of inclusion. After all, anywhere can become autism-friendly if the right people push for it and share their ideas.
Plus, it couldn't be more rewarding. Daly explains, "I look at my son, and I see every other child out there. Now people are able to come, relax, and enjoy the park as a family. It's such a great feeling."
While Edaville is definitely at the forefront of autism-friendly amusement parks, they are not the only ones, as many have been inspired by their efforts. Legoland Florida has also begun to offer quiet rooms to guests with autism and their families. Like at Edaville, the rooms offer weighted blankets, as well as squishy toys and noise-cancelling headphones. There are also tables with Lego building blocks that the children can play with.
Legoland has also begun their "Blue Hero Pass," which enables autistic guests and their families to skip the lines at many of the busiest attractions free of charge. They also offer guidelines for avoiding loud noises, bright lights, and other potential triggers throughout the park.
Dollywood is another park inspired by the movement, and started a calming room of their own in Tennessee. Within the room, guests are invited to play with toys that glow dimly, relax in a dark tent, or simple lay back into a large beanbag chair.
The Walt Disney World Theme Parks are beginning to create break areas within their first aid stations, as well as other areas that are meant for relaxation away from the intense crowds and excitement of the parks. They also have Disability Access Service for those who experience difficulties waiting in lines.
Starting a movement
The need for autism-friendly environments expand beyond amusement parks, and fortunately the movement is growing. Restaurants and movie theaters are beginning to change lighting and sound levels so every family can come and enjoy experiences that they were previously unable to, creating a feeling of exclusion. Approximately one in 68 children are estimated to have autism, making it crucial for businesses to open their minds to new practices.