Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

SENSORY TIPS FOR A ZOO VISIT

 

Does your child love animals but you are unsure about taking him or her to the zoo?  In this article you will find important sensory trips for a zoo visit that will be hopefully help you and your whole family have fun there!

 

My autistic kids have always loved animals. Farm animals. Zoo animals. Neighborhood animals.  Zoos are naturally attractive to young kids and more so for those kids who have an intense fascination with animals.  But it’s very important to consider the impact of the all the noises, sights, smells, and sounds of the zoo on a child with autism.

 

 

AREN’T ANIMALS THE BEST?

 

They are loyal and love on us. They ease our fears and keep us grounded. They connect with us despite the communication gap.

 

Many autistic individuals find comfort in the presence of animals. Whether it’s a pet at home, livestock on a farm, or a service-dog, animals bring amazing benefits to the lives of those who often feel frustrated by a lack of understanding from other humans.

 

So, visiting a zoo seems like the most natural place to go for an autistic child, teen or adult.

 

Except that not all zoos are created equal.

 

Just because a zoo has animals doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to be a great experience.  Other people will be there, too…LOTS of people!  The potential for sensory overload can be high, depending on the level of crowds and the type of sensory environment zoo architects have designed.

 

To date (summer 2019), only three zoos in the entire country are certified autism centers.  Several may be “autism friendly” by having some sensory kits available or special “autism awareness” days.

 

Our nearby zoo is not deemed a “certified autism center”. In fact, the Indianapolis Zoo had ZERO assistance for anyone with sensory-cognitive issues. No sensory guidelines, no sensory kits, no calming room, no wait-assistance…nothing.  Even one staff member expressed her concern about having to leave the zoo early because her autistic nephews were having sensory meltdowns. (Sounded like my kids’ first zoo trip!)  Needless to say, I was disappointed with their lack of autism accommodations.

 

Even so, we still made up our minds to go.

 

And that is exactly what most autism families do.  Despite a lack of accommodations, they will still visit their favorite places!

 

My autistic daughter and I visited the Indianapolis Zoo on a day that was dry and sunny with low-crowd level predicted.  We ended up having a fantastic time.

 

However, the last time we went—when my kids were toddlers—the trip to the zoo was just about a disaster.

 

Through lessons of my past and most recent trips, I hope to provide some guidelines that will ensure a more fun and worthwhile trip to the zoo.

I will also provide tips to empower you to advocate for your autistic loved one.

 

SENSORY TIPS TO CONSIDER BEFORE MAKING A ZOO VISIT

 

You have picked the date.  A zoo trip is now in the works!

 

Before you think about “winging” a visit to a zoo, consider all potential scenarios during your time there.  In other words, at what point will you and your autistic loved one be tired? Hungry? How will a sensory-overload episode be handled? What happens if you lose sight of your loved one?  Here are some sensory tips for a zoo visit:

 

1. First check the zoo website for accommodation information.

Is the zoo you are visiting at least “autism friendly”?  The Indianapolis Zoo website had no link or any mention at all of having accommodations for those on the spectrum. They did host an autism awareness day with a local agency.  (But one day is clearly not enough).  You may need to call the zoo directly if they have anything at all to assist those with autism. Knowing this will determine next steps to prepare.

 

2. Decide how much time and money you will spend at the zoo.

To save some money, I recommend you buy tickets in advance, which are often cheaper.  There may be some coupons at given times, but no deep discounts were available by having the Medicaid-based Access Pass. We entered the parking lot 15 minutes before opening.  No parking lot attendant was at the booth to take the parking fee, so we saved money by getting there early.  Other questions to ask yourself: How tired does your autistic child get walking around for several hours?  How often do you eat?  Are you wanting to save money and bring your own food in?

 

3. Download the zoo map.

You may want to study the amenities, exhibits and other accommodations in order to plan out a visit-strategy. What are your child’s favorite animals? If he or she loves giraffes, then don’t miss out on the feeding opportunities. Often this requires a separate ticket and designated feeding times at most zoos (including the Indianapolis Zoo).  Is he or she crazy about dolphins? Don’t forget to get a separate free ticket at the entrance for the show. Plan your visit around those important feeding or show times.

 

4. Figure out if it’s worth spending extra for the attractions.

Most zoo admissions include some limited animal interaction and shows.  But they don’t include rides and other things like animal feedings.  Indianapolis Zoo has the TAP (Total Adventure Package), which is an extra $12. We found it worth purchasing it in advance.  Instead of buying one-time-access tickets we had a wristband. It allowed us unlimited access to those extras, so we could go on rides again and again. We got more than our money’s worth out of it!

 

5. Research or inquire about the dietary offerings at the zoo.

Most snacks, I noticed, were not gluten-free or casein-free. If your child is not a big salad-eater, then perhaps consider bringing in your own snacks and meals.

 

6. Pack a sensory kit.

Some zoos may have sensory kits to offer families. But a safe bet is to assume they don’t. I highly recommend headphones for those with sound-sensitivities.  It was at the dolphin show years ago that we realized our autistic son’s limits to loud music and noise. He had a complete meltdown during the show, so we left early.

 

7. Bring someone along to assist.

If you have more than one autistic child and/or a child that is a toddler, preschooler or elementary-age, it may be helpful to have an extra pair of hands. Having a 1-to-1 ratio is best. My kids are almost adults, so that ratio is not necessary. Having another responsible adult is beneficial for other reasons (which I’ll get into later in this article).

 

8. Check the weather forecast.

Plan your trip accordingly.  How much cold or heat can your child tolerate?  What about rain?  Most zoos I know have the majority of their exhibits outdoors. The Indianapolis Zoo has two large indoor areas—Oceans and Orangutan Center—but would be crowded during a rainstorm.  Also, animals tend to be more active on cooler days and early in the morning, especially because zookeepers are feeding them.  The park is also less crowded then.

 

            

 

SENSORY TIPS DURING YOUR ZOO VISIT

 

Finally…a perfect day to visit the zoo has come! You feel prepared enough, maybe pre-purchased tickets.  Here are some sensory tips for a visit to the Indianapolis Zoo—although many other zoos have similar exhibits which you may find relevant.

 

1. Animal experiences…

Besides passively viewing the animals you can also actively interact with them in a more meaningful way.  The experiences vary in intensity.

Calming:

  • Petting a shark. No, REALLY! The Indianapolis Zoo has very large shallow shark touch pool in an indoor atmosphere that is very peaceful. It’s relaxing watching their graceful movements in water. The Oceans exhibits are by far the most calming.

 

  • Animals in the Plains and Forest areas—elephants, bears, giraffes and tigers—are slow-moving but fascinating to watch.

 

  • The orangutans are altogether special, often leaning their heads against the windows for a very up-close-and-personal encounter.

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits    

 

Intense:

  • Feeding the lorikeets. This was our favorite animal encounter, so much we did it twice. Using our TAP access we fed them a liquid solution out of a little cup, which they licked.  One moved up my daughter’s arm to top of her safari hat in search of food.  We couldn’t stop smiling and laughing!  On the other hand, they can be very loud, especially when they perch on your shoulder and chirp right in your ear!

 

  • We also hand-fed a giraffe and flamingoes.

 

  • In terms of animal observations, the most active were the lemurs. They proved to be very amusing to watch, thwarting the zookeeper’s efforts to corral them back inside by constantly escaping.

 

  • The dog show was lively. There was enough space for seating and it was shaded. It was hard to discern what the presenters were saying with loud music playing in the background.  (Headphones recommended)

 

  • The dolphin show, while very enjoyable, was perhaps the most intense experience with music that was a bit loud and very crowded with spectators. (Headphones recommended)

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits        

 

2.  Rides…

Slow-moving rides—like gondola systems and boat rides—tend to be relaxing experiences. Train rides can be both relaxing and intense at the same time. The greatest difficulty would be waiting in lines.

Calming:

  • The Skyline is the most relaxing, as long as everyone in the party can handle gliding 50 feet in the air. Although it was intended to observe the orangutans swing from massive heights, we didn’t see any outside. It is mostly to be enjoyed as a slow-moving ride above the zoo and skyline of downtown Indianapolis.

 

  • The train was relaxing but a bit more intense. A voice on a loudspeaker provided a “backstage tour” of the zoo. Sit in the back of the train to avoid the loud whistle in the front.

 

  • Compared to those at amusement parks, the Kombo Coaster would be considered a “kiddie coaster” (so not THAT intense). There were no lines for the ride during the entire time of our visit. So, if your child is a sensory-seeker and meets the height requirement, this would be a perfect attraction to ride again and again with the TAP.

 

  • The carousel appeared to be more intense than calming, considering it was placed in a more visible place in the zoo with higher crowds. (We did not ride this attraction, so I cannot comment on the volume of the music.)

 

 

ADVOCATE FOR YOUR LOVED ONE’S SENSORY NEEDS

 

If the zoo you visit has NO special accommodations for those with cognitive-sensory needs, then you’ll have to advocate for your autistic child or other family member.

Here are some suggestions that might work for you:

 

1. Consider having someone to be a “line placeholder” if necessary.

The Indianapolis Zoo does not have a “wait outside the line” accommodations. We waited 40 minutes for both the train and Skyliner rides.  That may be entirely too long for some on the spectrum.  Some zoos might have line accommodations—check in advance.  I suggest you let someone at the ticket booth know you will have a placeholder in line (that extra person you bring along) while you wait nearby with your child.  Or…you could always ask a stranger if they can hold your place.  (Never hurts to ask.). Ask guest services at the zoo entrance what they can do to help you.

 

2. Create a small laminated card that explains your autistic child’s needs and maybe how they can help.

Sometimes it’s necessary to convey your needs in a non-verbal way with staff.

 

3. Make staff aware if your child is a “runner”.

If your child has a lack of personal safety and runs off, be sure to alert zoo staff at guest services as well as at each exhibit. They usually have personal radios to communicate with one another in the event your child goes missing. Have your child wear identification with your phone number.

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit       

 

PRECIOUS MEMORIES MADE AT THE ZOO

 

Some zoos have a very spacious feel and are better designed to handle more crowds, especially if they have very wide walking paths. The Indianapolis Zoo is one such place that can accommodate many people without making you feel claustrophobic.

 

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, while one of my favorites, has very narrow walking paths which can create bottlenecks and tight spaces. Recognize your child’s ability to handle crowds. Watch videos of the zoo you want to see to get a better sense of space.  This may affect your choice in which zoo you do end up visiting.

 

Zoos can be both peaceful and thrilling experiences all at once.  Sensory-seekers love the hands-on interactions with the animals and the rides, while sensory-avoiders can just observe them play.  Just be sure to do your research before you go.  And if your autistic loved one has had enough, try again another time.

 

Our family has continued to go to a zoo year-after-year despite meltdowns. Every trip to has been better than the one before it. I loved watching their progress on outings like this.

 

It takes time to become acclimated after recognizing how your autistic loved one reacts to the sensory environment of a zoo.  I encourage you to just appreciate the smiles and joy felt by your kids watching and playing with their favorite animals!

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

 

Consider planning a weekend getaway to Indianapolis. Check out my article on making the most of a trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum! 

Respite Vacation at Home

Respite Vacation at Home

Have you ever considered having a solitary respite vacation at home? 

Seems like an oxymoron concept, right? Vacations are supposed to be AWAY from home to be a real vacation.  How can you truly take a respite vacation at home when it reminds you of all you need to do?

Well, that depends on your definition of “vacation”.

If it’s defined as a chance to explore new places and seek thrills, then yes, that makes sense.

But if “vacation” means gaining a new perspective and just relax, then you don’t have to seek it elsewhere.

For five whole days, my entire family was gone.  While they were at different camps, I was by myself at home.  As in…alonewith no one around…to need me.

It was amazing to find solace in my entire house for more than a day. And not just in a bathroom locked away to escape the kids for a few seconds!

In other words, I experienced the pure bliss of SOLITUDE!

For me, that describes a respite vacation at home perfectly.  When you get to a point in your life when you actually fantasize being a jail for a little while just to escape the pressures of home-life, then you NEED a respite away from others!

Respite doesn’t have to be expensive or far from where you live.

In fact, I encourage you to consider taking some time to be by yourself in the comforts of your own home.

 

Take nature walks during your respite vacation

Why a “solitude vacation” is “what the doctor ordered”

Have you ever wondered what daily life would be without someone else needing you every second of the day?

I can’t describe how lighter I feel by not having to worry about the demands of anyone else but my own.  At least just for a little while.

Well, that’s not entirely true…

I still maintained a semi-normal routine: I still had dogs, cats and chickens to feed.  And I did do laundry and dishes… only ONCE this week! I did cook…a few times.

BUT…I didn’t have to pick up and put away loose articles of papers, clothing, or shoes that weren’t mine.  I didn’t have to run errands for someone else. I didn’t have to take someone to therapy or scouts or band or piano lesson.

I visited places I wanted to go, when I wanted to go.  I could drive to another city and visit a friend. I could stay up and sleep in. Or, go to bed early and rise early…all because I could.

To a person without kids, the idea of staying at home but still having to work in the yard doesn’t sound like a vacation.

But to any parent of children, no matter how many, no matter what age and size, no matter their abilities or disabilities…BEING ALONE IS A VACATION!

 

Relax with a book during your vacation at home

Get into the “respite mindset” at home

Since you don’t have the distractions of serving and caring for others, you have more free time.  How you want to use that free time is now your own choice. You don’t have to fit it into your schedule around others’ needs.

You do need to adopt the attitude that your home-space can be a vacation-space.  That means letting go of obligations that haunt you into feeling guilt if you don’t do them. It may take a day or two to unwind to figure out how to take a respite vacation at home. Be kind to yourself!

First, what are your end-goals for respite? 

  • Figure out what you want to get out of your time in blissful solitary confinement at home. How do you want to feel by the end of the week? Do you want to feel calm and at peace? Do you want to feel more energy and alive?  Do you want to gain a greater appreciation and gratitude for the blessings in your life? Do you want to feel more spiritually centered?

 

  • Be aware of how you feel when doing certain things. If the act of performing a certain task itself brings you joy, then by all means do it. If the process only adds to your stress, forget it! For example, putting clutter away and doing some light cleaning at the start of my respite brings me to joy and peace to see order out of chaos. But I am not about to spend a whole day or week doing that.  Blah!

Second, what are the means to achieve your respite goals?

  • Create two different lists: “Tasks to NOT do” as well as “Tasks you want to do”. Drop certain task your normally do (like laundry) or at least minimize the time you spend on them if they stress you out. Maximize your time for things you always wanted to do but normally can’t with life’s constant distractions (like taking a whole day for reading your favorite novel or journaling).

 

  • If you have some long-term “bucket list” goals, consider using this time to start working on those. Do you want to create new healthier habits? Do you want to reconnect with others you hardly get to see?  Do you want to organize the mass of family photos in shoeboxes? This period of respite could enable you to gain the momentum to form new habits that will carry you through the more hectic days.  Just as long as you have JOY in doing those things!

 

  • Here are some specific things I did with my time: (Feel free to steal ideas…)
    • Visiting with close friends without rushing back home
    • Jumping on my son’s trampoline
    • Laying outside and daydreaming as I watch the clouds go by
    • Mowing the lawn (no joke, I actually enjoyed this)
    • Sipping on a Frappacino at Starbucks while working on my blog
    • Doing DVD exercises in which the instructor is in a gorgeous tropical setting
    • Organizing my computer desk while watching Netflix comedians
    • Hearing a political figure discuss foreign policy at my local university
    • Participating in webinars that teach about cool vacation destinations
    • Dealing with a thieving racoon at 3 am (okay…that was not on my to-do list)

 

Invite a friend over for tea during your respite

Recruit others to “lift your load”

Let me guess.  You’re probably thinking, Just exactly how am I supposed to get alone-time?

All I can say is…find ways to MAKE IT HAPPEN!

If we as autism parents don’t ask for help in the first place, it’s never going to come.

1. Take advantage of respite camps!

For me, it has become a lot easier now that my kids are teens. We can take advantage of opportunities built for this purpose.  My daughter attended an autism camp about an hour away.  Not only does it help her build self-confidence and independence skills, but it is designed to provide respite for special-needs parents.

2. Find local special needs day camps.

I urge you to contact local or state autism or special-needs advocacy groups for more information on opportunities like this.   Some YMCAs even offer day-camps for special needs kids. If you can’t get an overnight break, then at least a day-long respite would suffice.

3. Get respite help through the Medicaid Waiver.

The Medicaid waiver provides respite as a service for parents.  Find an agency that hires skilled workers you trust.  Some agencies may even permit you to use allotted respite hours over a few days instead of a couple hours per week. If you trust your respite worker with your child overnight, then try at least a day or two away to see how that arrangement works.

4. Ask family or friends!  By all means bribe them if you have to!

For one week my parents took care of our two kids when they toddlers. I went with my husband to the Walt Disney World area for a couples-respite. I didn’t even step foot in the parks. I de-stressed in solitude at the resort while my husband was at work conference.  In the evenings we had fun and reconnected after the last few years of 24-hour baby care.

Since then, I have asked family, maybe once or twice a year, to take my kids overnight for a few days.  They get to enjoy their grandkids more, and we get a much-needed parenting break.

5. Hire special needs caregivers.

Other avenues include hiring caregivers from companies located on the internet.  An Indiana mom started a company called Synapsesitters after she had a hard time locating someone knowledgeable about autism.   Another company to consider is Care.com, in which you can hire sitters and nannies who have experience with special needs.

Ask your therapy agencies for help in locating good help.  Undoubtedly, they have clients who have probably requested the same thing. They may be able to recommend certain websites or local services over others.

 

Treat yourself to a spa day during your respite vacation

Drop the “parent guilt”…and GO FOR IT!

I love, love, LOVE my respite!  I feel refreshed and de-stressed.  The daily routine doesn’t feel like a heavy burden. When I see my husband and kids again, I appreciate them more because I missed them. This time also helps me recognize unhealthy parenting habits that I need to change.

Too many autism parents neglect their personal need for respite. The excuses?

No one understands my child’s needs. I don’t have money or time for that.  No one is around to help me. My child absolutely needs me all the time.

Guess what? Your child will survive without you for a little while! The compounding stress of daily life without a break over weeks, months, or even years may make you resentful or make interacting with your autistic child more frustrating.

Recognize when you need to take a step back to renew your mind, body and perspective on life.  Plan respite time far out in advance like a real vacation.

Do EVERYONE a favor, but especially yourself:  take advantage of a respite vacation at home and all the benefits it will bring to you and your family!

For a wonderful therapeutic getaway in an ethereal setting, visit Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. Perfect for a family or friends vacation…but also great for taking time for yourself!

 

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Basking in cascading sunlight at Hocking Hills

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills: Unplug…unwind…breathe deep!

 

Tired of living in our stressful modern world?  You can find the perfect atmosphere for nature therapy at Hocking Hills State Park.

 

We live in fast-paced movements; loud artificial noises; concrete scenery; electronic addictions; and compartmentalized living.  No wonder people want to escape it!

 

These sensory-intense, disconnected environments are often “toxic” for autistic individuals, aggravating their sensitive neurological systems.

 

But being in nature, even for a few minutes, can have instant benefits. Studies have found that being in nature decreases cortisol (the stress hormone). Those that make longer commitments to be in nature, often on guided group adventures, have found lasting healing from chronic pain, such as PTSD.

 

Breathing in the forest air immediately brings peace to mind, body and soul.  It is calming and rejuvenating at the same time…which can help both sensory-seekers and sensory-avoiders.

 

Nature therapy through forest breathing

 

Being in the forests of Hocking Hills in Ohio fulfilled my need to escape daily living for a while and feel refreshed.  I felt centered, grounded, at-peace and brimming with joy among the trees.  My autistic kids absolutely loved spending time there with other family around.

 

Besides physical health, being in nature can also help improve sensory-integration, spatial/body-awareness, and executive functioning.

 

Nature therapy at Hocking Hills is ideal for autistic individuals and their families needing a calming atmosphere.

 

“Forest therapy”

 

The Japanese call it “forest bathing”.  It is the act of being attuned to the smallest of sounds and the scents of the trees. It is not fast-paced hiking. Rather, it is slow strolls or sitting quietly in nature. It is feeling the “life” of the forest.

 

Reading about others’ experiences with “forest bathing” gave me the sense that they were getting in touch with the “kid inside”.  You know, the one who took mud baths, ran barefoot in the grass, and spent most of the day outside with friends.

 

WHAT TO DO:

  • It’s very simple…take your time to walk along the paths. Reflect upon the beautiful scenery and try to think of nothing else for the moment. Let your child take his/her time to explore along the path.

 

  • As you walk or hike at a faster pace, inhale slowly and deeply. Show your child how it’s done.  Take breaks to just sit and relax.

Just being in nature has been proven to provide many benefits for kids:

  • Leads to increased collaboration, imagination, concentration and positive feelings.
  • Fuels higher levels of Vitamin D from natural sunlight, providing an immunity barrier against illnesses and protect against weight gain.
  • Teaches kids how to assess risk better than being in a “safe playground” space.

 

The power of nature as a healer for physical and social health is amazing.  But it also contributes to sensory wellness, perfect for those with autism.  (Don’t believe me?   Read this article.)

 

Sensory Integration Therapy

 

Autistic children can be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to the environmental input around them.  They react in different ways to make sense of it all. Determine your autistic child’s key sensory issues and use nature as a “therapy tool” to work on them.

 

Body awareness:  Some with autism have vestibular (balance) issues.  Others have a hard time knowing where their body is in space relative to other objects or people (called proprioception).  Some of the best things to do to improve this condition—besides working with a PT or OT in an indoor, highly-structured setting—is to practice in natural settings.

 

Take care of more treacherous paths

WHAT TO DO:

  • Those with more severe issues can stay on shorter trails that are relatively flat and/or paved in the gorges. Gradually move to more rugged paths and those with no safety rails when you feel confident your child can handle those.

 

  • With gentle guidance on the nature trails, you can challenge your child by slowly and carefully walking over tree roots, climbing over rocks, and wading in a stream.

 

  • “Show and tell” how you walk down muddy steps, then let you child follow one step at a time.

 

  • Consider buying a stable, well-built hiking stick or two (one for each hand). Even experienced hikers use these for stability and support. These are a great therapy tool to practice coordination.

 

The 5 Senses:  Nature, especially in larger state or national parks, provide a more serene atmosphere with much less sensory output.  No extreme visual, auditory, or motion-based triggers here bombarding your autistic child.  Your child can focus on receiving and processing input one aspect of nature at a time.

 

WHAT TO DO:

  • Hiking in nature can be part of your child’s sensory diet. For example, if you child needs help with auditory input, help him or her pick out the different sounds with active listening.  Or, let him or her touch plants, rocks, leaves, running water, etc. (anything non-poisonous, of course).

 

  • Shut out one sense to heighten the experience of another. For example, have your child close his/her eyes to feel a natural object or to hear birds. Or, apply sound-barring headphones to focus on the visual elements to play an “I-spy” game.

 

Executive-Functioning Therapy

 

Many autistic kids remember a million tiny details but cannot remember 2-step directions. Organizing information in their brain is hard.  Add all of life’s daily distractions and environmental sensory triggers and it becomes impossible to focus.  But a calm environment with “no rules” can be a good place to practice those executive-functioning skills.

 

Appreciating the natural beauty of Hocking HillsWHAT TO DO:

  • Practice following 2- or more-step directions with simple task along the path. For example: “first, find a rock that is round and then throw it in the creek.” Or “find two sticks and put the smaller one behind a big rock”.

 

  • To help with understanding sequences, take photos of places along the path. Have your child take some of his/her favorite spots as well. When you get back from your trip you can create your own social story of your memories in order you did them. (Note day and time of your photos and add them into your story.)

 

  • Have your child help pack the hiking bag with needed supplies. Ask what they think is necessary for the amount of time you’ll be gone of the trail. This helps with learn the process of planning.

 

Reconnecting with Nature

 

Tackling important sensory and life skills doesn’t have to happen in a lab-like, institutional clinic.  Some of the best progress happens in more natural settings having fun with one’s own family.  The truest breakthroughs for those with autism happen in joyful connection and relationship with others.

 

Simple fun at Hocking Hills

 

Hocking Hills is the perfect respite for autistic individuals to connect with self and to forge greater bonds with their families.

 

See for yourself why people come back to Hocking Hills in Ohio again and again…any time of the year!

 

Now, let’s move on to the lodging accommodations available at Hocking Hills!

 

Besides Hocking Hill, go out and discover “nature therapy” in any city, state or national park wherever you find an abundance of trees.

Safety Tips for Hocking Hills

Safety Tips for Hocking Hills

NOTE:  These are safety tips for Hocking Hills. They may apply to any state or national park that has a similar terrain and accessibility. 

 

Old Man Cave of Hocking Hills

 

Otherworldly.  Awe-inspiring.  Therapeutic.

 

Words like these cannot even begin to describe the scene that awaited our initial discovery of Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio.  Given the rocky terrain of the park, however, some parents might be worried their autistic child may not be able to handle the paths. I hope to reassure you by providing safety tips for exploring Hocking Hills and other parks like it.

 

Located southeast of Columbus, Ohio, this mind-blowing, beautiful place has attracted visitors from all over.  Southern Ohio is a lot like southern Indiana and Kentucky…gentle-rolling hills with caves and deep ravines carved out by waterfalls.

 

But Hocking Hills is totally unique.  Because its gorges are so deep, it hosts plant and animal species only seen in Canada or the Pacific Northwest.  Giant hemlock trees dominate the landscape while Canadian warblers make their home here. On the upper rims you’ll find typical Midwest oak and hickory trees.

 

Stair rails for safe guiding

We felt transported to particular movie settings. To me, we stepped into the “Star Wars” forest moon of Endor where the Ewoks lived. My son said it looked like Pandora from “Avatar”, since the giant rock outcroppings appeared to be “floating”. My daughter simply said it was “nature’s Disney World”.Otherwordly rock outcroppings at Hocking Hills

 

Hocking Hills is a sensory treat:  stunning scenery; soothing sounds; and a plethora of tactile experiences.

 

That said, there are some very critical safety challenges while exploring Hocking Hills.

 

Autism families need to take special care to prepare themselves and their children for hiking the breathtaking, but rugged, terrain.

 

Amazing forest beauty at Hocking Hills

 

Hocking Hills is a hiking park with many trails.  You will need to be able to walk, climb stairs and maneuver over rocks and tree limbs.  You will also need to have a fairly good sense of personal safety.

 

Here are safety tips for Hocking Hills to help you navigate and overcome these challenges:

 

1. Very Limited or NO WiFi

The benefit is that you get to completely unplug from the outside world. You are truly escaping from reality. The problem is that you cannot communicate with one another if you split up, contact people back home, or (in the event of an accident on a trail) call up an ambulance if you don’t have good cell phone coverage. I called park staff about this issue: Sprint has some spotty coverage and sometimes you can get signal at the town or tops of ridges. I have AT&T and had no coverage anywhere.  Park rangers are around but we didn’t see any during our visit.

TIPS:

  • I suggest that the entire party stays together while hiking the trails. Have a designated “runner” to get back to the car quickly in order to get help.

 

  • Determine a “meeting place and time” if your party gets split up; wear watches so everyone is in sync.

 

  • Bring a few park maps in case you get lost. Don’t leave your phone in the car—bring it along as it has a GPS function to help locate your position even without wifi.

 

2. Weather Forecast

If you can, find out the weather for the day. (See if your lodging accommodation has its own WiFi or DirectTV access.)  Hill top during a thunderstormA hot sunny day will not be a burden if you hike in the deep gorges. Temperatures drop at least 10-15 degrees here and shade is abundant.  Weather is very unpredictable in the summer months.

We got caught in a thunderstorm on top of the ridge.  Standing in puddles of water in a high location was not good idea, so we walked back. Our trail turned into a raging stream, so we had to be extremely cautious where we stepped. People below on the gorge trail witnessed massive trees and rocks falling after being uprooted by the heavy downpours. Water always falls to its lowest point, so the water can rise extremely fast along the lower trails.  (See the “before and after” photos of Conkle’s Hollow below.)

 

Before the rain…

Dry path before the rains

 

After the rain…

After the heavy rains

 

TIPS:Bad weather moving in

  • Download the AccuWeather app. Access the latest forecast online with a good signal. Then, when you don’t have wifi, you can still see the weather offline (for up to 15 without signal).

 

  • If you hike in the rain, be sure to be on the lookout for rising waters. If there is a chance of storms or you hear distant rumbles of thunder, I strongly urge that you do NOT hike the trails!

 

3. Equipment Essentials

Some trails are long and have treacherous terrain. The right shoes are critical. Depending on how you want to spend your time on the trails, you’ll need to pack for a variety of needs: hunger, thirst, first aid, and capturing those moments for your memories. We put the first aid kit to good use after my nephew (with SPD and ADHD) scraped his knee up climbing the rock stairs.

TIPS:

  • Wear shoes that have thick tread and won’t fall off. Do NOT wear flip-flops or Crocs without an ankle strap! Some gym-shoes are not appropriate as they can be slick on muddy, wet stone-stairs. I felt very safe wearing water shoes—never slipped at all.

 

  • Bring a lightweight backpack big enough to carry what you need. Include snacks and plenty of water.

 

  • Bring small sensory items your child may need in case the hike is overwhelming.

 

  • Bring a good poncho and maybe a wide-brimmed rain hat on overcast days and if you anticipate the possibility of rain.

 

  • And most importantly, don’t forget a small first aid kit with alcohol wipes, band-aids, gauze and bandage tape.

 

4. Pet friendly trails

Many people brought their dogs with them, little or large.  They were all on leashes. Most seemed incredibly friendly.  Still, it’s best to prepare for encountering a stranger’s pet.  The only trail that does not allow dogs is Conkle’s Hollow.

TIPS:

  • Know how your autistic child reacts around dogs. Is he or she incredibly scared or intensely fascinated with other people’s dogs? Create a social story that teach him/her the appropriate behavior about being around strange dogs, if necessary.

 

5. Accessibility & Body-Spatial Awareness

If I haven’t drilled in the idea enough, I’ll say it again: Hocking Hills has rough terrain.  There are only two trails that are flat and paved: Ash Cave and Conkle’s Hollow Gorge Trail.  They provide terrific access for wheelchair users to view the scenery in the gorges. BUT…they only go so far.  A large boulder is blocking a good portion of the view of the waterfall at Ash Cave, and it’s impossible to see the end of the trail at Conkle’s Hollow as the paved trail turns rugged. Many areas of the trails have no rails to protect you from falling off a steep cliff.  If you are taking a younger child or one who has bodily coordination issues, be extra careful in taking them through these trails.

 

Beware of time-worn stone steps

 

TIPS:

  • Download the Trails Maps before you go! Study them and decide which ones are best for your family. For each trail they indicate the number of stair-steps, how many miles, and how dangerous. You can also pick up a trail map at the Welcome Center.

 

  • If your child has never been hiking in natural parks before, has not developed a sense of personal safety, or has poorer balance or coordination, start with some of the paved lower gorge trails previously mentioned.  The short distance to the falls on rugged terrain would be good practice for learning how to navigate over rougher paths.

 

  • If your child is very coordinated on unpredictable pathways, obeys safety commands, and understands what to do around dangerous areas, then feel free to hike the rim or overlook trails where you can enjoy gorgeous, birds-eye views of the park. Old Man’s Cave trail is a terrific hiking experience with incredible natural and man-made structures.

 

Handicapped accessible path

 

If you live in the Midwest but can’t get out to visit the Northwest Cascades any time soon, then come explore Hocking Hills.  Consider staying at least three days to fully explore what it has to offer.

 

Simple pleasures to be found at Hocking Hills       Awe-struck wonders of Hocking Hills

Safely guiding on the path

Before you arrive…

 

I recommend you visit the Ohio DNR site for Hocking Hills. Here you will find photos of some of the park sites.  Explore YouTube for videos of the trails. All Ohio State Parks are free to visitors, by the way…

 

For a more complete vacation planning resource (including lodging and other activities besides hiking), visit the official Hocking Hills tourism website.

 

When you arrive….

 

To begin your hiking adventures, be sure to stop by the Welcome Center first. Speak with a park ranger or staff more familiar with the park trails for specific guidance and recommendations.

 

Hopefully I have addressed the most critical safety considerations for which autistic individuals and families prepare.

 

       Trail waterfall       Dark path ahead       Architectural wonders

 

To be continued…

 

Now, let’s move on to the therapeutic benefits to be discovered at Hocking Hills!  Click the link to access the article: An Autism Guide to Exploring Hocking Hills State Park (Part 2): “Nature Therapy”

 

 

 

 

 

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World

I dare you to ride the Voyage!

Thinking of trying out an amusement park with your autistic child?

  Consider Holiday World in southern Indiana. It’s the perfect family getaway, even for special needs families. Discover the accommodations available in this autism guide to Holiday World.  

Some of the best things are in the middle of nowhere…literally.

  Rising out of the hills of southern Indiana in the small village of Santa Claus (yes, THAT “Santa Claus”) stand gravity-defying giant steel and wooden structures.   Roller coasters, to be exact.   Like the Griswold family making a pilgrimage to their beloved Wally World in the movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, many residents of the surrounding Midwest states make the annual journey to Holiday World. Meet Santa in the summer!   But it’s not just the roller coasters that draw them.  Holiday World is family-owned and designed specifically for the whole family in mind, including very small children.   Its whimsical holiday-themed lands celebrate Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July. It’s probably the only place in the world that kids can greet Santa Claus outside of the Christmas season.  It’s a mix of old-fashioned carnival rides, world-renowned roller coasters, and one big water park—Splashin’ Safari.   We usually come to Holiday World in May before Memorial Day, so even on a Saturday the lines for the rides were not too long. For this reason, we never considered getting a “Ride Boarding Pass” before. But I wanted to conduct a bit of research into how it was used and whether it was truly helpful for those on the autism spectrum.  

Holiday World is an “autism friendly” amusement park.  By my experience, hopefully you can gain some valuable insight into planning your own visit to Holiday World with your autism family.

 

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World Accommodations

  Before I even left the house, I made sure to dig into their accommodations policy.  Considering that they have a “Calming Room” and a “Ride Boarding Pass” for those who cannot wait in long lines, I would personally designate this park as “autism friendly”.  I wanted to test that out when I arrived.   We got there early considering we live in Eastern Standard Time and Holiday World is in Central Standard Time.  They allow people into the parks 30 minutes before they “rope drop” the area to the main attractions. The kiddie rides near the entrance were actually running before official opening.   Past the ticket takers to the left is “Holiday World Services” where you can ask for the “ride boarding pass” and any other accommodation needed.  We did not have to present any evidence of diagnosis.  They were very eager to accommodate and explained how it was used. Special needs boarding pass for attractions    Special needs accommodation pass   Boarding pass instructions and procedures   The purpose of the “ride boarding pass” is to assist guests in wheelchairs who cannot move through the queue or those who cannot wait in a typical line. No more than 4 people in the party can use this accommodation.  Guests must use the exit to access the attraction. You can only get one return-time at any given time. We were told we would either (a) be let on the ride immediately or (b) be given a return time.   For our first ride we were neither allowed immediate access nor given a return time. It took about 5 minutes for staff to acknowledge us and then another 20 minutes—standing in the hot sun—before we were permitted to ride. My autistic teens were upset with this arrangement. My son was embarrassed that we were not walking through the standard queue.  Fortunately, they gave us our first choice of seating after they apologized profusely.   I got the sense that the “boarding pass” was mostly originally designed for those with physical disabilities whose wheelchairs cannot move through the queues.  I don’t know if they really accommodate those with strictly sensory-cognitive issues.   I would have been happy to have been promptly acknowledged and then given a return time to come back later.   After that ride my kids were adamant that we stand in a regular line like everyone else. It turned out to be a 45-minute wait.  Oh well…at least we were in the shade.   Unfortunately, Holiday World does not have signs indicating how long wait times are for each attraction.  It also does not have signs indicating which rides accommodate those with autism or other disabilities and where to go (like Disney parks do).  With the “ride boarding pass” handy, however, you know exactly which attractions allow return-times.  

Your autism guide to a fun-filled family adventure

 

1. Know your child’s time-limit for waiting.

If your child can wait up to 30 minutes or more then you will be fine without needing to use the “ride boarding pass”. If it’s less, be sure to grab it from Services.  

2. Ask for a return time right away.

When you use the boarding pass, be sure to ask the ride attendant immediately and politely whether you can go right away or need a return time. Just standing there hoping they see you may not work in your favor. Flag them down if necessary.  

3. Assess the wait time by observing the pace of lines.

When you get to the ride, take a few minutes to observe the speed of the queue. See how many ride operators are attending guests. The Scarecrow Scrambler did not seem to have a long queue, but it was moving very slowly with only one attendant.  Many rides seem to only have one attendant, in fact.  Be sure to ask for a return time for attractions with slow moving or long queues and with only one attendant.  

4.  Take advantage of conveyor-type attractions.

Rides that are on conveyor systems and/or hold more people in the vehicle (roller/water coasters, water rides, dark rides, etc.) tend to have faster queues than those that can only get a small group of people on at one time. You may not need to use the “ride boarding pass”. On the other hand, be aware that lines for certain seats on the roller coasters will be extra-long.  If your autistic child is dead-set on riding at the very front or very back, warn him or her that it will take longer. Time the wait for middle-seat lines, then multiply by 3, if you need to use a visual timer while waiting in line.  

5. On hot afternoons, head to the shady area attractions with little or no waits.

On particularly hot days most people head to the water-park. This leaves the rest of the park with little or no wait for their attractions. Head to the areas that have more shade, such as 4th of July, Halloween, and Holidog’s Funtown (for younger kids). Wait times were 20 minutes or less; for most rides we got on the next time around.  

6. Take advantage of their “calming room”.

Holiday World has a “Calming Room” at the First Aid Station located at the entrance to Splashin’ Safari. If you anticipate needing a place for your child to relax after intense sensory stimulation—or gets upset if his or her favorite ride is down at the moment—this is a great amenity for families needing a break. Autism calming room at Holiday World It is first-come, first-served but you may not be waiting at all for the space. This large room has sound-proof panels, a padded floor mat, couches, bean bags, rocking chairs, dimmed lighting, and a tent. The only way you would know it’s here, however, is by asking Services where it’s located or finding that information on their website beforehand.  There is no sign pointing out that a “Calming Room” is available there. It’s not even in the Park Map & Information guide. Most autism families most likely don’t know it’s even available.  

7.  Bring your own sensory tools.

You will need to bring personal sensory tools such as noise-cancelling headphones, fidgets, or music.  Holiday World does NOT provide these items for you to borrow, so don’t leave home without them!  The Calming Room does have a port for you to plug in for special music that soothes your child and allows them to hear it through the room speakers.  

8. Take a break to see the shows or meet-and-greet some characters.

Grab a Show Guide at the entrance to what and when they are playing. Santa’s Storytime Theater and Hoosier Celebration Theater are well-shaded areas if you want to beat the heat.  

9. Go to the park on  less-crowded weekdays.

For fewer crowds, I recommend going during the middle of the week during the summer as well as before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Many seasonal passholders come during the weekend, so if you can, try to come on those less expensive “off-days”.  

10. Check out the gluten-free meal options.

If you have someone on a gluten-free diet, you can visit “George’s Gluten-free Pizza and Snacks” at the 4th of July area. Here you'll find gluten free optionsCheck out the list of allergen-free and gluten-free options here at this link. Consider eating before 11am and between 2pm-5pm for less wait for special orders.  

11. Before you go, download the Accessibility Guide to get a sense of what each attraction is like.

To see if your child can handle the roller coasters and other ride-based attractions at Holiday World, I highly recommend you watch the Point-of-View videos on YouTube. (Click on the links below to watch a few.).

Sensory-Intense Attractions

  Here are my two favorite coasters at Holiday World…which also happen to be the most intense:

1. The Voyage

The Voyage is the #3 top-rated wooden roller coaster in the world (TripSavvy). Aptly named, it is designed to make you feel like a pilgrim crossing the Atlantic in a hurricane, complete with the ability to make even the most die-hard roller coaster enthusiasts a bit motion-sick. (The back rows may enhance that likelihood of throwing up over the side.). I consider myself a roller-coaster aficionado, and the Voyage is the most intense roller coaster I have ever experienced.  I go on it every time I visit! Love it! Sensory Experience: extremely intense—body-jarring/bumpy; very loud sounds from the coaster on the track; very high heights; very fast; “windy” sensation; few brief dark tunnels; may or will induce motion sickness. Anything not tied down will be lost, including noise-blocking headphones!  Terrific for those sensory-seekers that get a thrill from roller coasters.   Challenge yourself to ride this super-charged coaster

2. The Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is the first steel launch-winged coaster in the world. It explodes out of the gate to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, immediately going into an inverted vertical loop (aka…upside-down). To say this is “thrilling” is an understatement. With feet dangling in mid-air you feel like you are flying like a devil-bird. Unlike the wooden roller coasters, this one is a smooth ride. My daughter would not go on the Voyage after experiencing the Raven (another wooden coaster) but this one she really liked. I can handle the left side better than the right side of the coaster with the slow inverted turn at the end (get queasy on the right side). Sensory Experience: moderately intense—very fast launch; smooth ride; high heights; several upside-down turns; may induce motion sickness. Terrific for sensory seekers not afraid of upside-down roller coasters and heights.    Splashin' Safari is terrific for water-lovers   3. Splashin’ Safari There are plenty of play areas for little ones at this water park as well as a giant wave pool and some terrific water coasters like the Wildebeest and Mammoth (for which you can use the “ride boarding pass”). If your autistic child just absolutely loves waterparks, then he or she will have a blast here. Life-jackets are available on a first- come, first-served basis at the wave pool for children and adults (with chest sizes up to 52”).  If you have an autistic adult with you and he or she is too big for their sizes, bring your own if necessary. Unfortunately, we have always skipped Splashin’ Safari. My kids prefer the land-rides and sometimes weather has not always cooperated for being in water. Sensory Experience: Sadly, I cannot review it from a sensory point-of-view. If you have ever been to a large waterpark like Great Wolf Lodge, then you have a sense of what it’s like…only outdoors, more to do, and in an even bigger area. Many people stay all day here and skip the land-rides.  Be sure to watch point-of-view videos out there of their water-based attractions (see previous links).  

Autism Friendly?

  For the most part…YES. Holiday World does offer some nice amenities to those who can’t wait in long lines, need a sensory break, or have a special diet.  They were eager to accommodate when they could.   On the other hand…NO. We needed to advocate a little more using our “ride boarding pass”.  In addition, their accommodations are not always apparent to the first-time guest or even those who have been coming a while like myself. I highly recommend you check out their website for more information before you go. Hopefully, this autism guide to Holiday World has alleviated some of your concerns in that regard as well.   You'll love the old-fashioned carousel!

Why I love Holiday World

The amusement park is unique in that it provides several FREE items: free drinks, free sunscreen, free parking, and free WiFi.   It’s wonderful that they use preventative measures against sunburn and dehydration and make having fun affordable. The price of admission depends on day of the week and month, ranging from $29.99 to $49.99 on summer weekends. I love Holiday World! I dearly appreciate this park for trying to accommodate different needs and for the variety of attractions that will surely please everyone.   I know you will, too!  Water Tower at Holiday World
Finding Sensory-Friendly Movie Theaters

Finding Sensory-Friendly Movie Theaters

Here is a guide to help you find sensory-friendly film screeings.

Finding Sensory-Friendly Movie Theaters

“How do I go about finding sensory-friendly movie theaters?”

This is a question I was asked by a family member of an autistic child.  I actually had to research this one for myself as these sensory-friendly film showings are not often given enough public attention.

My autistic teens are able to watch the regular film showings now. But as younger children we rarely went to the movies in the theaters because they were so loud.

I don’t remember a lot of advertising about sensory-friendly film screenings when they were kids…but maybe it was because my son was already 6 and daughter 4 when it was first introduced by other autism parents.  Even today most people have to actively seek out the answer to this question for themselves.

 

Why Sensory-Friendly Movie Theaters are Popular with Autism Families

First, they appeal to those with sensory sensitivities.

Those who are sound-sensitive don’t have to wear sound-barring headphones as they normally do. Those with a fear of the dark can feel comfortable seeing others around them. Those with high-levels of energy and need for movement to experience the film can move around and not have to sit still for more than an hour.

And let’s face it, sometimes we’d just like to get up and dance to certain musicals!

Second, they appeal to parents.

An autistic child’s parents can enjoy the films with the whole family without worrying about getting dirty looks or rude comments from their neighbors.  Being surrounded by other families who “get it” feels like finally belonging to a “supportive tribe”.

This is also a great opportunity to network with other families in which to share knowledge and empathy. This is one setting a family can truly feel more relaxed with one another in public.

Third, they help acclimate the child to being in the public sphere.

The sensory-friendly film settings allow those with autism to feel more comfortable in public settings without needing to always behave “appropriately” as expected by general society.  The more times a child goes out for events like this, then parents can teach “public behavior” skills progressively, adding one new behavioral goal with each trip.

For example, they can work on how to ask for a snack from the food counter attendant.

Fourth, you can bring in your own snacks.

Yes, you read that correctly!  Since many are on restricted diets, families can bring in gluten-free, casein-free, or other diet-based foods into the theater.

Not pay an arm-and-a-leg for popcorn?  Sign me up!  (Call ahead to make sure your theater allows this.)

Many sensory-friendly movie screenings allow you to bring in your own food!

 

 

Finding Sensory-Friendly Movie Screenings Near You

While I don’t have the location of EVERY major theater that hosts sensory-friendly films, I can at least help steer you in the right direction to find a local theater that accommodates autistic individuals.

You can start with your local theater company to see if they offer this program on a regular basis.

Our town has two AMC theaters.  AMC has been instrumental in making these opportunities happen in the first place. They have developed a beneficial partnership with Autism Society to make autism families aware of their sensory-friendly film showings. They offer family-friendly movies the second and fourth Saturdays of each month and reserve Tuesday evenings for “mature” film viewers.

Regal Cinemas offer a similar program called “My Way Matinee”.  Click on each theater to find out about their sensory-friendly programs:

You can check with your local library if they offer sensory-friendly film programs.

For example, our town’s public library showed “Incredibles 2” one afternoon in November.  Choice of films will most likely be G and geared toward the young.

You’ll also have to be proactive in seeking out these scheduled films on their website.  You’ll need to make room in your schedule if you want to try to see these (mostly likely) free showings that only run one time.

If there is nothing available where you live, get involved in making those opportunities happen for yourself and others!

There are copyright laws concerning the public showing of movies without consent of the owners, of course.  Maybe you are part of a small autism support group and would like to have a private showing in your home.

If you think there are enough people in the community who would benefit from a more public event, ask your local theater, library, parks and recreation department, or even disability agencies if they would host a sensory-friendly program.

Sensory-Friendly screenings are gaining popularity in many communities.

Greater Choice for Autistic Individuals and their Families

You will need to check showtimes several weeks in advance if you want to see an autism-friendly film showing. While there is not a lot of choice in what film to see and when, the fact is that these sensory-friendly film showings are gaining popularity.

With the support of major autism organizations and large theater companies, the movement is definitely gaining ground.  Finding sensory-friendly movie theaters and film screenings should hopefully be easier to access in the future!

 

For more ideas of fun activities check out my article on ways to connect with your autistic child at home.

Fun activities to connect with your child at home

Fun Activities to Connect with Your Child at Home

Get on that trampoline with your child!  And have fun!

 

How to Connect with Your Child using Fun Home-Based Activities

There are a variety of fun activities you can do to connect with your child at home.  Some involve a lot of time, while others very little time and effort.

Just spending a few minutes a day doing something your child loves is sure-fire way to feel a greater bond.

Get Out of Therapy Rat-Race!

Do you feel like all you get accomplished during the week is shuffling your kids back and forth to a myriad of after-school activities and therapies?

Are the kids begging you to play but the laundry pile is taller than you?

Is “fun mom” taking a backseat to “chauffeur-dishwasher-cook-secretary-therapy mom”?

Besides feeling frustrated trying to keep up with daily life, many parents feel disconnected from their kids if communication and mutual understanding are challenging.

When my kids were young, they had meltdowns because I didn’t understand what they needed.  Hence, I felt like I needed to be their therapist or case manager to meet their greatest needs.

Sometimes what they really needed more was my time, attention and love…even if it was just 20 minutes.

Find that Joy at Home

If you want to go beyond figuring out your autistic child’s needs and connect with them in joyful, simple ways, here are some ideas—ranging from minimal effort to greater effort—that you can do everyday.

These activities are designed to foster meaningful interaction between two or more people as well as important life skills.  As your child’s first teacher, he or she will be looking to YOU to be a guide in daily behavior and relationships.

It’s time to grow, connect and make memories at home…together!

1. Read together a favorite book.

If they child is moving around or stimming, this is okay. If he or she seems to be listening, read it with flair and even act it out.

2. Be still next to your child.

No phones, no computer…just solitude together.  Just having someone nearby without a distraction is connecting.

3. Put on your child’s favorite music while doing chores together.

We put on Disney music on Pandora while we work together. It brings on a lot of laughter and singing while making boring chores more fun.

4. Jump on a trampoline together.

This is guaranteed to make you both smile and build strong muscles. (As long as you don’t pee your pants while you jump!)

5. Sing along to favorite songs while in the car.

This build camaraderie between the two of you as well as language skills for your child.

6. Recite nursery rhymes while taking walks.

We even like to recite movie scripts together.  Anything that fosters interaction between two or more people!

7. Swing right alongside your child!

I always had fun being silly while we were swinging side by side. The stimulation of swinging not only provides a great sensory outlet for pent-up energy. I believe it also helps many autistic children learn things and language better while they are in motion (like it did for mine).

8. Draw or color pictures together.

My daughter would make me draw a paused movie or cartoon scene. This began the spark of a lifelong passion for drawing for my daughter.  I am very grateful that she asked me to inspire her!

9. Play silly games that your child enjoys and understands.

Our favorite is Disney’s Apples-to-Apples game.  My kids end up laughing so hard and the silly associations they come up with.

10. Watch your child’s favorite TV show or movie without any other distractions.

This also means no phone, computer or iPad around.

11. Have your child pick out and make a recipe with you.

Not only does this provide an opportunity to learn self-help skills, but also mutual cooperation, taking instruction, tactile learning, engaging the many senses, and building a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence.

12. Work on a LEGO project together.

Working on a project your child loves says “I value your interests and I want to encourage you to explore them.”  Building a LEGO set together teaches mutual cooperation, communication and visual-spatial skills.

13. Take your child to a children’s museum or a zoo.

I have always loved taking my kids to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.  While sensory-intense, it allowed me to play alongside them and not be “mom”.  A day-trip to the zoo is also fun, although some sensory considerations must be taken in account.

14. If your child likes to draw or create stories, make a comic strip together.

You can help him or her develop some amazing skills in the process. This could be a long-term project you work on together, enabling a strong bond to grow.

15. Create a social story together dealing with something that is hard for your child.

Often it is extremely frustrating for both you and your child to resolve a tough problem.  You child may not be able to express his or her thoughts and feelings well. And you may not understand at all.   But sometimes visualizing the problem can help. Create or find a social story online that relates to the problem he or she is currently dealing with. It will be empowering for your child to have a hand in creating his/her own social story.

16. Explore nature parks and create journals with plants and animals you discovered.

I love walking in the woods with my kids.  Not only is therapeutically relaxing for all of us, but we use that time to teach cool nature facts.  If your child is a collector, bring a bag to stash leaves, acorns, and other discoveries. Then you can research what they are and create a nature journal together in the process.

17. Do fun science experiments—video record what happens.

Some science experiments are wacky fun!  What happens when you put a Mentos in Diet Coke?  How do you make your own homemade lava lamp?  These are activities that don’t require a lot of verbal communication to see results.  Watching videos of these projects can help when providing instructions. Take pictures of your efforts to make the memories last longer!

18. Download a star-gazing app and learn about the different stars, planets and other things in the night sky.

If your child is naturally inquisitive like mine about the night sky, he or she will really enjoy the time you spend picking out the constellations, stars and planets.  What a beautiful way to connect with your child than over the great natural wonders beyond our world!

19. Go camping or enjoy a staycation somewhere local for a night or two.

Camping is a unique experience in that you get out in nature and away from electronic distractions.  There is nothing like enjoying quiet moments together at the campfire.  Staycations are great for getting your child used to travel and getting acclimated to spending more days away from home.  Plus, travel expands the learning mind!

For tips on how to introduce the experience of camping to your autistic child, read my article “Easing Your Child Into Camping”.

20. Start planning a week-long trip to Disneyland or Walt Disney World with your child!

It is so much fun to spend time with my kids pouring over the Disney maps and finding our favorite attractions. Then we watch Disney planning videos of the resorts and point-of-view videos of the attractions together.  It’s exciting to dream up our vacation plans together!

21. Learn musical instruments together—play songs at Christmas time or whenever you feel like it.

Not only have you develop a love of music together, you have taught your special needs child how to work cooperatively with another person toward a goal.  Learning to play music enhances personal growth as well.  Music appreciation and knowing how to play an instrument will remain lifelong passions!

22. Take an online course together.

This honestly could be anything (like learning how to draw mandalas). Most likely, however, your child will be steering the interest.  You can find a wide variety of course on Udemy or Khan Academy.  One really cool course is learning how to be a Disney animator!

23. Join a hobby club together.

If your child loves animals and crafts, then 4H is a wonderful club.  If your child likes building with electronics, then many communities have robotics clubs. Check with your child’s school or local library to find out where all the hobby clubs in your area meet. Get involved as a leader and/or helping your child with the projects.

24. Serve as a leader of a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop to which your child belongs.

There are some amazing benefits for kids on the spectrum when they join a Scout troop!  Not to mention the wonderful bonding opportunities between you and your child when you get involved as a troop leader. A long-term Scouting experience builds strong character and growth as well as provides opportunities for employment and resume-building.

25. Homeschool your child.

This may take a period of transition if your child is used to public school. But after some initial hard days and refusals—if that applies to your child—the reward of having a deeper relationship with your child will pay off!

I homeschooled my daughter for two years during middle school. I believed those years allowed us to forge a strong, trusting mother-daughter bond that has carried through into her public high school year so far.

Chores Can Wait…Joy Lasts Forever!

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get caught up on laundry because you bounced on the trampoline with your child.

And you won’t remember making the perfect Pinterest dinner as much as the moment of pride in listening to your child sing a Disney song for the first time while swinging together!

Your child will be overjoyed just to have exclusive time with you. He or she will remember those fun moments for years to come.

Take pictures of those moments!  Taking a trip down memory lane together years in the future is another great opportunity to reconnect over pleasant times.

Consider doing one or more of these fun activities you can do at home to connect with your child at least once a week.  Let “fun mom” come out to play!

It’s time to connect with your child by making memories of everyday life at home!

 

 

An Autism Guide to the Indianapolis Children's Museum

An Autism Guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum

See a mama dinosaur and her baby trying to get into the Indianapolis Children's Museum!

Your Autism Guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum

If you have ever wanted to visit the Indianapolis Children’s Museum but were afraid of an intense sensory environment, then allow me to guide you as you navigate your visit with an autism.

 

The “Awesome-est” Museum on the Planet!

What do dinosaurs, a space station, a giant “chocolate” slide, an archeological dig in China, an old-fashioned carousel, and Super Mario Brothers have in common?

Why, they are all located at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum!

There is no other museum that my family and I have visited that is quite like the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.  You can spend several hours, even days, exploring its 5 floors of highly interactive, sensory and educational exhibits.

While most exhibits are permanent, some are temporary for a few months (such as Paw Patrol) or a few years (Take Me There Greece). With actual science experts and interpreters available to answer questions, this is truly a working and ever-evolving museum.

 

Obsessions Fulfilled!

Trains, trains...who loves trains? Find them here at the Indianapolis Children's Museum.Is anyone in your family really into model trains? They have several displays and places to play with toy trains…and an actual steam locomotive used in the late 1800s!

 

Is anyone into dinosaurs? They have real, life-size dinosaur bones on display, a “dig for bones” site, and play areas with giant eggs and dinosaur figures.

 

Is anyone into learning about archeological finds from Egypt, China and the Caribbean? Try on scuba gear, put together pieces of a sarcophagus, or use tools to discover relics from China’s past.

 

Visit a replica of the Space Station at the Indianapolis Children's Museum. Is anyone into space exploration? Discover what it’s like to live on a space station and watch the frequently-run planetarium films on different space-related topics.

 

And much, much MORE! (I’m just scratching the surface of what is there.)

Not Just for Kids!

While its name implies that it’s only for children, I highly beg to differ.  Just recently they had an enormous exhibit of Star Trek paraphernalia, including models of the Enterprise and the costumes worn by the original cast of the TV show and most recent movies.

 

My old Star Wars lunch box is here! I was as giddy as a small child upon discovering that they had my very first lunchbox—a red Empire Strikes Back—encased in a display.

 

The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is truly a place for ALL ages. Each exhibit caters to the different developmental stages and sensory experiences—audio, visual, tactile, smell, kinesthetic—making the museum a complete and playful learning environment.

 

Warning…Potential Overload!

Because it is so sensory rich, this can pose problems for some children and adults on the spectrum.  For one, it can be incredibly LOUD.  It can also be very CROWDED (like, theme park crowded) on certain holidays and weekends.

Some displays are very visually stimulating.  The planetarium can be overwhelming for those afraid of darker spaces.  My own autistic children experienced sensory overload within about 4 hours, needing to get away for a short break.

With this in mind, I want to provide you with some important tips for making your trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum a fun and memorable experience for everyone involved.

Come explore with me as I provide you with an autism guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum!

 

BEFORE YOU GO…

1. Plan out when and how long you can visit.

Can you visit during the weekday when it’s not so crowded?

Sometimes the museum has certain “free days” over holidays…DON’T GO THEN!

It is also very crowded over spring break weekend.  Can you visit one day or two?  Can your family handle only a couple hours at a time or all day with a break?

If you live far away and are spending some time in the area, then consider a two-day experience to spread it out, especially if it becomes too overwhelming after a few hours.

 

2. Explore the website of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.

You’ll be able to see pictures and a few videos of the different attractions in each exhibit.

Also, watch YouTube videos of the attractions with your autistic loved one to get a better sense of what to expect in terms of behavior or anticipated excitement.

Have fun getting to the know the museum with your child!

 

3. Download the Sensory Guide while you plan your trip.

This very thorough resource is designed to help families with autism have the best possible experience. You can print this out at home or ask for one from a ticket-taker.  You will need to have it with you as you go through the museum as there are no sensory designation signs at the exhibit entrances.

They also provide a Social Narrative that you can read with your autistic loved one at home to prepare for this experience. A very helpful Visual Checklist has social story cue cards—both pre-verbal requests as well as pictures of the exhibits—that you can print off and laminate to use while you are at the museum. You can make a pre-determined schedule based on your child’s interests as well as sensory needs.

You can learn about their full range of their accessibility program here.

 

For better prices, buy your tickets to the Indianapolis Children's Museum online.

4. Find out if you qualify for any discounts.

You can get a 25% discount by buying tickets 2-weeks in advance through the website. If your autistic loved one can’t wait in a long ticket line, this is especially helpful.

They do NOT offer AAA discounts at the museum, but you may ask your local AAA office (as well as employee-based programs) if they can sell discounted tickets.

Consider buying a family membership if you plan spend more than one day there within the year and have more than a couple of children within the family.

Another idea: suggest getting tickets or membership as holiday or birthday gifts.

If you are a resident of Indiana and have Medicaid or your autistic kids have a Medicaid-based family supports waiver, your family qualifies for the Access Pass. It will allow you to get in at $2/person.

The Glass Tower by Dale Chiluly...right through the center of the museum

 

WHEN YOU ARRIVE…

5. Come earlier in the day.

Be there at the hour they open if possible. Usually there are less people in the first couple of hours.

If your child has a hard time waiting in line, have a helper wait with him or her while you go get tickets.

6. Visit the concierge for assistance, including sensory tools.

If you didn’t bring your own noise-cancelling headphones, ask for a pair from the level 1 concierge desk.  (I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THESE AS THIS PLACE CAN BE LOUD.) You can find it past the giant water clock near the elevators.

7. Consider starting at the top floor first, then work your way down.

Most people want to explore the lower levels first. But for a shorter line at the carousel (only $1 to ride/person) visit level 4 first thing in the morning.  The exhibits here—Carousel Wishes & Dreams and Science Works—are also the most sensory-stimulating in terms of noise, tactile- movement, visual-spatial, and lighting. You child may be able to handle this area earlier in the day when he or she is less tired and not ripe for a meltdown.

8. Playscape is open to special needs kids. Normally, this very hands-on, movement-based area (level 3) is only for children 5 and under.  But if your older, autistic child would like to explore water, sand, colors, and a climbing structure, feel free to play here.

Read about amazing kids who made a difference in our world! (Also a good quiet spot)9. For some quiet, down-time, visit The Power of Children.

It is a reflective, educational exhibit (level 3) of the lives of three important children who made a difference in the world.  There may be some spaces that induce a calming effect.

Other quiet areas are found on Level 2:  around the ramp (Mini-Masterpieces and Stories from Our Community) and Big Bad and Bizarre where you can find a dark, quiet overlook of the Dinosphere® exhibit.

 10. When you get hungry…

The Food Court can be very chaotic and loud around lunchtime. There is plenty of space to eat so consider the tables further from the cashiers.

But if you would rather bring your own lunch (especially with a special diet), there is a quiet place outside the food court just inside the Dinosphere®.

Ask the concierge if there are other places you can eat that are quieter.

11. If your child is a runner…

Bring along a tracker device if necessary or something your child can wear with your identification and phone number.

Several exhibits have more than one entrance. Dinosphere® is dark, so it can be hard to constantly track your child.

Alert staff “interpreters” at exhibit entrances that your child has autism and is susceptible to take off without warning. They can alert other staff to locate your child.

Consider bringing along other helpers.  Call ahead to see if your certified respite care worker is entitled to a free ticket (317-334-4000).

 12. Potentially “scary places”…Dinosphere is a sensory-intense envrironment!

These include:

  • the Treasures of the Earth elevator (simulates riding down a semi-dark mine-shaft that rattles);
  • the Planetarium (can be disconcerting due to being very dark and playing shows on the rounded ceiling); and…
  • Dinosphere® (darker area with special effects sounds and sights, including dinosaur growling and stormy weather).

With good preparation, your child might be fine handling these.

Watch a video of the experience. Then create a social story with your child.

 

PLAN WELL…HAVE FUN!

While it’s important to be prepared it’s also important to “go with the flow”.  That includes not pushing your child to keep going when they have had enough.

I recommend spending more than one day if you are not from Indiana. Make it a weekend getaway and visit the Indianapolis Zoo as well!

My autistic kids absolutely love this place, even as teenagers. Every visit has been a little different as they have grown up and the museum morphs with new exhibits. We had our challenges with sensory overload (including me!). But it’s one of the most enriching learning and playful places on the planet.

With an autism guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum to help you navigate the sensory experiences, you’ll a greater chance of having a lots of fun!

See Bumblebee and hear him talk at the Indianapolis Children's Museum lobby!

 

 

The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is definitely an experience your family will never forget!

 

 

 

I would love to help you plan a fun-filled getaway like this!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

 

Trains Your Autism Family Will Love

Learn about Getaways with Trains Your Autism Family Will Love

In this article you will learn about the different events and trips with trains your autism family will love. If trains are big fascination in your household, discover how you can satisfy that passion with a trip to a railway!

 

The Magic of Trains

There is something magical about trains.  They represent history, grandeur, power and nostalgia.  They are an endless source of fascination for young and old alike.

Whenever a model-train set is present, complete with a beautifully built scenic backdrop, you’ll see crowds with their eyes fixated on every little detail.

Most children seem fascinated by Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.  Created as a book series but popularized by videos, Thomas is a worldwide recognizable character.

When I brought the videos home from the library, my son was absolutely in awe.  Slowly, through birthday and Christmas gifts, we built our Thomas the Tank Engine character collection—Gordon, Percy and Edmund were our favorites.

But soon it became a motivational reward for good work and good behavior.  After all, I simply couldn’t buy a train every time we walked into Barnes & Noble bookstores.

Waiting to acquire and welcome another friend of Thomas into our home was a good lesson in delayed gratification.

 

Trains & Autism

Many people speculate a correlation between a train fascination/obsession and autism. I don’t know of any conclusive studies on that. But both of my autistic kids loved the show and the toys.

  • Perhaps it the constancy and dependability of trains running on a track or lining them up in a straight line?
  • Was it was the feeling of control over motion or the spinning of the wheels?
  • Or maybe it was the simplistic emotions of the characters in the movies, or the fact that they express themselves without actually moving their mouths?
  • Was it teaching them to connect a character’s actions to consequences in a more understandable way?
  • Did playing with the trains provide a sense of stability and comfort in their lives?

I would say YES to all of these, at least for my kids.

To avoid over-analyzing the reasons, I would simply state that my kids made a strong connection to these characters.

Translating what they saw in the videos to actual play with the same characters as real toys made a big impact on their development.

While my son was very particular about me playing with Thomas, I was allowed to play with Percy. (He let me set up the tracks, which I was more than happy to do.) He was pretty adamant about playing with trains HIS particular way, preferring to reenact the movie scenes rather than interact with me.

But gradually it moved from a side-by-side model of play to more two-way cooperative play. Eventually being forced to share his trains with his sister, he learned how to share and negotiate.

 

From Toys to the “Real Thing”

Then, the movie The Polar Express came out in theaters. Boy, did my kids enjoy that film!

A year or two later did I find out that a railroad depot somewhere in my state offered a Polar Express train excursion, complete with hot cocoa and a visit by Santa and Mrs. Claus.

I drove two and a half hours with my son to ride this for his birthday.  He was pretty thrilled, to say the least.  Over the years we did other train excursions.

I think by the time the “Day Out with Thomas” event became pretty popular, my son had become a pre-teen and moved on to Legos and Disney. I do wish we could have experienced that when my kids were younger.

 

Riding Thomas the Tank Engine

OPTION 1: Day Out with Thomas

If you child loves the Thomas the Tank Engine series, then actually getting to ride him would be a dream come true!

The event is promoted as “Day Out with Thomas” and requires advanced ticket purchases.  They are held from Spring to Fall and in only one or two locations across several states.

If you have to travel far, consider making it a short vacation. Check out the “Event Information” page to see what fun activities they offer besides the train-ride.

Bring your camera! (This is generally a short train ride—around 30 min.)

OPTION 2: Thomas-Land at Edaville Family Theme Park.

If riding Thomas at your local railway station is not enough, consider planning a trip to the Edaville Family Theme Park in South Carver, Massachusetts.

They have an entire land devoted to Thomas & Friends, filled with fun rides and attractions!

They even host sensory friendly awareness weekends to promote education and safety for families with autism.

OPTION 3: Visit the Thomas & Friends website

You can keep the fun alive at home when you visit the website!

The Thomas & Friends website has an incredibly array of information, including fun activities for kids, resources for parents (including using Thomas as a teaching tool), and the various Thomas-oriented events around the country.

 

Riding the Polar Express

If riding a Christmas train seems more enticing, then the Polar Express is what you’re looking for!

In my home state of Indiana, families like to travel to French Lick for this hugely popular seasonal event.  The local historic hotels offer vacation packages for young families who attend this event.

I remember seeing many children enter the West Baden Hotel wearing pajamas and carrying a stuffed toy because they just got off the Polar Express.

The train travels a certain distance, then stops to pick up Santa and Mrs. Claus who visit with each child.  Hot cocoa is passed out and each child is provided a small “gift”. (This ride generally runs 60-75 minutes long.)

 

I HIGHLY RECOMMEND RESEARCHING THE EVENT DATES AND BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE!

Even though over the years more excursions are made available at each railway site, these tickets are often snatched up quick!

Don’t rely on getting tickets a day or two before you plan to go.

 

Other Railway Events

There are many other seasonal events that will bring delight for train enthusiasts!

The men and boys in my family took part in a Wild West Hold-Up sponsored by the French Lick Scenic Railway, brought to life by reenactors in cowboy attire on horseback and others in period clothes. Even my teen son really enjoyed the experience.

(*NOTE: the “robbers” do not actually take your wallets, personal items, or hostages!)

They also host the Easter Bunny Express and the Dinosaur Adventure Train.

To find out more about other events like these, contact the railways in your state.

In Indiana:

French Lick Scenic Railway: https://frenchlickscenicrailway.org/

Whitewater Valley Railroad: https://whitewatervalleyrr.org/

 

Final Tips When Visiting a Railway

Even though your child may like trains, behavior may still be unpredictable in a new environment.  It would be wise to prepare your child.

Create a social story about the journey. Watch videos of kids riding the Thomas train to generate excitement.  Bring along snacks and comforting sensory items.  Alert railway attendees and the conductor if necessary that you child has autism and may need extra accommodations.

It would also be a good idea to know how long the time ride will be in advance. If your child can only handle short rides, then Thomas would be a better fit than the Polar Express.

Plan to do decompressing activities after the ride (swim at a hotel, play at a playground, etc.) if the amount of people at the event seems overwhelming.

 

Rail Journeys to Explore the World

I miss those days of watching my kids play with trains.  But train excursions don’t have to end when childhood is over.

When you visit large cities, take the subway.  (Find out why many kids on the spectrum love this mode of transportation here!)

Or better yet, consider taking a train vacation across country.  You can travel by rail from the nearest major city to the western national parks. The Grand Canyon offers sightseeing excursions by rail.

There are even amazing rail vacations in Europe!

See the world traveling on trains!

If there certain types of train experiences your family will love, I’d love to help you plan a amazing vacation package!

Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!