Often autistic children get overwhelmed by a trip to the zoo—by the unexpected sounds, smells, the unpredictable crowds—and therefore can’t enjoy the experience of learning about animals. The Philadelphia Zoo thinks that it’s so important for autistic children to have a positive animal experience that they created an area in the zoo that accommodates their needs.
KidZooU opened this April, a hands-on place that was planned with assistance from the Kinney Center and the Autism Research Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
At KidZooU, children can climb alongside animals and groom them, instead of simply watching them from a distance. This allows autistic children to connect with the animals more and keeps their attention so that they can truly learn. Close visual and tangible connections can significantly help autistic children get more involved.
“They connect with animals, they care for animals and they practice how to make the world a better place for animals,” Kristen Waldron, the zoo’s director of conservation education, explains.
Animals are great for kids with autism so this is a good connection for autistic children to form. Animals don’t expect anything from autistic kids like their peers might. KidZooU allows them to experience this positive connection.
“KidZooU makes it a lot easier scenario for us,” said Lauren Higgens, who has two young autistic boys. “It’s a nice quiet place. It’s enclosed and it’s about the kids really getting in touch with the animals.”
There are many accommodations for special-needs children besides the exhibits. Secluded quiet spaces are set up so that kids can take a break from the action. There are restrooms with adolescent-sized changing tables for teens on the spectrum who wear diapers. Interpretive signs include pictures, Braille, and sign language for those children who are non-verbal or have sensory challenges. Families can also map out their visits for their children online so that the visit to the zoo will be more predictable.
Kinney Center’s Michelle Rowe expresses her hopes that this multi-sensory concept of KidZooU will be embraced nationwide in museums and zoos. She explains why KidZooU is so important.
“Each time there’s a new and novel thing that comes along, it’s an opportunity for these kids to get upset and frustrated. What the zoo has done is provide them with an environment where they’re more likely to keep it together.”