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.
- 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.
- 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)
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.
- 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.
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!