ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) - In the last few weeks of summer vacation, the Como Park Zoo is a popular place to get in some time together as a family.
For some families, however, a simple trip to the zoo can be stressful, especially for those on the autism spectrum.
This year, Como Zoo has a new way to help those families. Several times a month, the zoo is opening an hour early for those with autism or sensory disorders.
At 9 o’clock on a warm August morning, 10-year-old August Olson was just getting warmed up. Checking out the zebras, flamingos and bison, August loves visiting the zoo.
“I've memorized the entire system for how endangered an animal is,” Olson said.
August knows that within an hour, Como Zoo will look very different. When the zoo gets crowded, it can be a scary place.
“Well, the second that someone tells me to do something I get extremely stressed. And then, it's worse because there's all this noise. And it's harder to hear, and if I don't hear then I get even more stressed, and then, it just downward spirals,” Olson said.
August's parents noticed he had sensory issues as a young child, even before he was diagnosed with autism. Now, they find activities he can enjoy like any other kid.
When Como Zoo teamed up with the Autism Society of Minnesota, it gave the, another option for summer fun.
“For August, he tends to get really anxious around crowds and it’s difficult for him to enjoy the experience. When there's so much chaos, it's hard for him to focus and he starts to get a little anxious. So, it’s a nice way for us to be able to spend time together and enjoy the zoo,” said August’s mom, Anna Theisen-Olson.
“You can only do so much to make the environment, to change the sensory nature of an environment. But you can do a lot in terms of having it be a welcoming place,” said Robyn DeCourcy, Education Specialist at the Autism Society of Minnesota.
The staff gets special training for working with the kids and their families, and there are sensory maps so the kids know the best places to go.
“The unexpected can be a source of major anxiety so we have a lot of resources available so that they can come plan out their visit. They can look at a map that has sensory information spotlighted,” DeCourcy said.
“The main stresses that you have here are taken down by at least 99 percent,” Olson said.
There are several more autism-friendly days at the zoo through the month of August. The special hours then continue once a month through the end of the year.
Admission is free and families are not required to preregister.
For more information, visit Como Zoo's website.