For someone with autism, a simple trip to the zoo can become an overwhelming and anxiety-ridden experience full of crowds and new and strange sights and sounds.
The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul wants to change that and make the venue accessible to everyone.
Starting Sunday, the zoo has added sensory-friendly, early-entry days to its schedule to allow people on the autism spectrum — or with other sensory disabilities — and their families the opportunity to visit before the doors open to the general public.
The zoo will open at 9 a.m. — an hour early — on 18 dates in 2018. Initially, the events will be monthly; dates will increase as the summer season begins.
The calendar, as well as a visual schedule for preplanning, a sensory map and a social narrative guide, is available on the zoo’s website at comozoo conservatory.org.
“A normal day of coming to the zoo might be a challenge for people who are on the spectrum,” said Lindsay Sypnieski, events coordinator at Como Zoo. “We want to give them a good, positive, welcoming experience and help them maybe make connections with other people going through what they are going through.”
Planning for the program, which has been successful at other zoos and aquariums, started last fall thanks to Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, Sypnieski said. A new position was created to look at ways to focus on underserved communities, she said.
The zoo isn’t the first or the only Twin Cities venue hosting sensory-friendly events.
Ellie Wilson, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, said groups such as the Children’s Theatre Company and the Stages Theatre Company do one or two special performances of many of their productions, making alterations to lighting or sound or other aspects.
While movie theaters can’t make changes to the films themselves, some cinemas will schedule a showing in which it’s OK to stand up or move around, Wilson said.
At U.S. Bank Stadium, there’s a sensory-friendly space for those who need it during a game or concert. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has a sensory tent that can be erected at events.
“The overall point is they’re trying to tell the community that it’s OK if it’s not easy for you to interact in the typical way,” Wilson said. “We still want to include you.”
Como Zoo has been a long-standing partner of the Autism Society, working with the nonprofit on programming for youth and adults.
“Como has proven to be really innovative,” Wilson said. “We’re really proud of them for this initiative.”
Wilson said autism isn’t always about sensory overload; there can be differences in processing time, anxiety or changes in routine.
By creating space and time in the zoo schedule, “Como is addressing more than sensory needs,” she said. “Take your time to do what suits you. In the very, very big picture, this is a step in the right direction.”