NORRISTOWN >> For families with children on the autism spectrum, the idea of visiting a popular attraction and coping with possible sensory issues can be fairly stressful.

Will it be too loud, too crowded, too rowdy?

While more and more places are addressing the needs of those with autism, Elmwood Park Zoo, 1661 Harding Blvd., Norristown, recently became the first zoo anywhere to earn certification as a Certified Autism Center. The designation, given by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), is awarded to organizations who have completed a training and review process with the goal to better serve individuals with autism and other sensory needs, noted the zoo’s executive director Al Zone.

“We are extremely excited to be the first zoo to offer its guests on the spectrum services that are tailored to their needs,” Zone said. “We know that the interactions our guests have with our animals can be so rewarding; we thank the IBCCES for helping us to extend these same experiences to an under-served community, and there’s no doubt that they will truly benefit from this inclusion.”

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Whitpain resident Ann Salomon and her husband introduced son Eric, now 21, to the wonders of Elmwood Park Zoo nearly 20 years ago.

“Just like the Variety Club in Worcester, Elmwood Park Zoo is one of Montgomery County’s best kept secrets. Yes, the Philadelphia Zoo is good, but it’s huge and you can get lost, and sometimes you just need a smaller area. Elmwood Zoo is centrally located and it’s so close to home. You can be any age to enjoy the zoo.”

Although Eric is on the autism spectrum and the family has been visiting the Elmwood Zoo long before the Certified Autism Center designation, Salomon said she’s never had a negative experience at the zoo.

“Whether you have a diagnosis of an intellectual disability or autism, it’s a safe place. This is an inclusive program for those with challenges, not just for kids on the spectrum, but adults too. Like everything else, programs like this evolve because people ask for them,” she noted. “This is for the population of those diagnosed on the spectrum, but there are also people in the general population who have sensory integrational challenges.”

Salomon praised the public venues that are now accommodating those with disabilities.

“I believe Sesame Place is now providing safe and quiet areas for those with challenges, and tools to de-escalate a meltdown, trying to make it as relaxing as possible. And when you think about it, typical kids have meltdowns as well,” she said.

Eric, a Wissahickon High School student who had his 21st birthday celebration at Elmwood Zoo, has always been a big fan of the animals in residence, his mom said.

“My son is not an adrenaline junkie, so I don’t think he would do well with the zipline, but he is fascinated by the animals. He’s pretty high functioning, not severely impaired on the autism spectrum. There are others who are worse. Sometimes he just needs sensory strategies to calm him down if he’s feeling stressed. Some days you can see his challenges and some days he’s like anybody else and just goes with the flow.”

A press release indicated that, while research has shown that traveling and enjoying new experiences is one of the most intellectually stimulating events for individuals on the spectrum, there are still few trained and certified travel options for parents looking for destinations and attractions to accommodate their needs.

In lieu of relying on the growing number of organizations promoting “autism-friendly” options that can vary widely, more parents are now seeking out destinations like Elmwood Park Zoo that have completed research-based training and professional review.

For nearly 20 years, IBCCES has been an industry leader in autism training for licensed healthcare professionals and educators around the globe. Recognizing that many families with children with special needs have limited travel options, IBCCES created programs specifically for the hospitality and travel industry, IBCCES Board Chairman Myron Pincomb noted.

“For years, research has demonstrated positive outcomes for individuals with sensory disorders who interact with animals. We’re excited to partner with such a great organization (Elmwood Park Zoo) that is truly committing to serving those on the spectrum. We believe it’s important to ensure all guests can experience the world around them in a safe way,” said Pincomb. “Our Certified Autism Center designation is awarded to premier organizations who have completed rigorous training and meet the highest industry standards.”

IBCCES also created AutismTravel.com, a free online resource for parents that lists certified destinations and connects families to other resources and each other. Each destination listed on the site has met Certified Autism Center requirements, which include extensive staff training and an on-site audit conducted by leading autism experts.

Elmwood Park Zoo will also be listed with other Certified Autism Centers on AutismMember.org, a partnership between IBCCES and Autism Society to connect families and individuals with businesses and resources committed to serving individuals on the spectrum.

For information about Elmwood Park Zoo’s autism program, call (610) 277-3825.

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