AKRON, Ohio - The Akron Zoo is the first in Ohio and the second in the country to become a sensory inclusive zoo.
The certification focused on the zoo's accessibility and inclusion for all individuals.
News 5 talked to two mothers who have children with autism. They said the sensor inclusiveness is all about making all families feel truly welcome at the zoo.
Amy Belles introduced us to her son, Carson, who loves the zoo and French fries. Carson is non-verbal and uses a speech app on his iPod to communicate. He was diagnosed with autism when he was two-years-old.
“I was angry at first, sad,” she said.
Belles said she quickly pulled herself together for her son, but going to public places wasn't easy because of Carson’s anxiety. Over-stimulation to light and sounds can cause some of these children to act out.
“At least for our family, we were more likely to just leave and then not try to again,” she said.
Temara Collins-Ford shared a similar story about her son, Avery. He was also diagnosed at age two.
“They stare, and they question,” she said, “Sometimes you just want to cry. Sometimes, I find myself, I just want to cry, I just want to leave.”
She told News 5 that Avery loves carousel rides and the zoo.
“They have feelings, just like everybody else,” she said.
She said these children have feelings of wanting to be included and want do the things that other kids can do.
As part of the sensory certification, zoo staff and volunteers were trained on autism and other sensory needs. Signage has been placed throughout the zoo, designating quiet and headphone areas for visitors. Sensory bags are now available for free at the zoo's front office Welcome Center, and include fidget toys and noise cancelling headphones. The zoo also now has weighted lap blankets available for visitors.
“We actually now have a place, where Avery can calm down,” said Collins-Ford.
Five quiet zones are now available for use, including a private room guest comfort station.
The new features at the zoo not only make these families feel welcome, but they also come at a low cost. Elena Bell, the zoo’s marketing and sales manager, said KultureCity only charged about $1,000 to make the zoo sensory inclusive.
“It's about not giving up. It's with those accommodations that you can keep going and not have to leave,” said Belles.
In 2016, the zoo began working with KultureCity, a non-profit dedicated to creating inclusive spaces, on the initiative. The local KultureCity Chapter hosted an event at the zoo for children with autism and other sensory needs. After the success of the event, the zoo became committed to becoming a sensory-friendly zone.
“One of our goals is to make the zoo accessible to everyone,” said Dog Piekarz, Akron Zoo President & CEO. “By partnering with the very effective team at KultureCity we know that the zoo is more welcoming to all families and we are now equipped to offer a better experience for families with sensory needs.”
To further assist those with sensory needs, "Zoothing Hour" allows guests a calming zoo experience. On Tuesday, August 8 and Saturday, November 18, guests with special needs can come to the zoo an hour earlier than it opens to enjoy the park without large crowds.
The Akron Zoo is following in the footsteps of the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama.
Earlier this year, Quicken Loans Arena and Cleveland Cavaliers announced a sensory room for fans at Cavs games.