By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune
In his recent State of the City speech Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn launched an “Autism Friendly Tampa” initiative, pledging that the city would work with the University of South Florida’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) to better meet the needs of residents with autism.
It is an admirable undertaking, and one that The Florida Aquarium has pursued for years with USF’s CARD. Buckhorn is wise to similarly commit to serving those with autism, which physicians now recognize is fairly common. The Centers for Disease Control says one in 68 American children has been identified with autism spectrum disorders.
As part of its resolve to serve these children, and in concert with April’s designation as Autism Awareness Month, The Aquarium will hold its fifth annual Day of Discovery for children with autism or other special needs and their families on Saturday, April 29.
The Aquarium staff recognized long ago that a trip to an attraction can be daunting for children on the autism spectrum and their parents.The lights, noise, crowds and colorful displays that delight other children can be frightening or disorienting to those with the disorder, who may be exceptionally intelligent but have difficulty communicating or coping with the unexpected.
So, The Florida Aquarium, working with CARD experts, adopted a series of practices aimed at putting children on the spectrum and their parents at ease. “For many years, our goal has been to basically be an ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] leader and offer a venue that is inclusive for anyone with special needs,” says Rob Lamke, Promotions Manager for The Florida Aquarium. “We want everyone to feel welcomed.”
On the Day of Discovery, The Aquarium will open for participants at 8 a.m., instead of the regular 9:30 a.m. Special presentations, including an appearance by Star Wars characters, developed specifically for the morning’s audience, are planned. Moreover, The Aquarium will be altered to make visitors more comfortable. There will be no loud sounds, pulsating lights, dark corners or other things the children might find disturbing.
Aquarium educators and curators will interact with the children, who will be invited to participate in activities such as making ice from molds, which is then given to the otters. Lamke says the kids love watching swimming animals frolic with their creations. Admission is $5 prior the event and $8 at the door. Attendance has increased every year and Lamke expects 700-800 visitors this year.
But while the staff takes pride in the Day of Discovery, serving children with disabilities is a daily task at The Florida Aquarium. All Aquarium staffers receive special training on how to respond to the children’s needs and are taught how to calm a child who is acting out.
Knowing that some children can be unsettled by a new experience, The Aquarium staff worked with CARD to develop a special guide that enables parents to prepare their children for what they will see. For instance, it describes the cave-like entrance to the Wetlands Exhibit, so children won’t be frightened by it. It presents such things as how to use the escalator or what children should do if they are upset by certain smells. The guide can be found here.
Lamke (pictured below with son Keland) says the Aquarium provides free noise-cancelling headphones, as some kids are agitated by loud noise. He also points out the design of the coming Splash Pad provides a secure place for the parents to relax while their children run free.Such attention to such detail has resulted in CARD designating The Florida Aquarium an autism friendly business.
The Aquarium is continuing to develop services for not only children on the spectrum but for all visitors with special needs, regardless of age.Lamke says it’s been rewarding to see The Aquarium’s accessibility efforts, such as the Day of Discovery, grow and evolve. And other programs are always in the works, including allowing children to don wetsuits and venture into the display tanks, accompanied by staff guides of course.
Indeed, Lamke believes The Aquarium’s water theme provides a particular advantage in appealing to individuals on the spectrum. “It is a great element for the children, soothing and self-contained,” he says. But the health benefits of being around water for all of us are being explored and presented by researchers. Lamke concludes, “Being surrounded by water is very calming, not just to people on the spectrum, but also to so many of us. That’s what makes an Aquarium like ours so appealing for the whole family.”