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Welcoming everyone: A sensory-inclusive Zoo
sensory needs boy and mom
Keller ,6, and his mom Chloe watch the Wild Wonders animal show.

On the steps of the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater, there’s a little boy in a shark T-shirt. He’s clutching a blanket, and staring wide-eyed as an armadillo scuttles across the stage. He looks just like most of the other kids in the audience, who are equally enthralled.

But six-year-old Keller is different in a really important – but invisible – way. Keller has autism, and the way he, and others with sensory needs, experiences Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is about to get a whole lot better.

For the Zoo is now certified as sensory-inclusive with the non-profit group KultureCity, and is adding tools, training and thought to making every guest feel welcome – especially those with different needs.

Backpacks and storyboards

feelings card
A feelings card helps the non-verbal tell others what they are experiencing.

The first thing Keller and his mom Chloe do when they arrive at the Zoo is head for the carousel to check out a sensory backpack. Since April these have been available for free to guests who need them; they’re filled with fidget toys, noise-cancelling headphones for muting over-stimulating situations, “feelings” cards for helping non-verbal folks express their needs, and a lanyard with a headphone logo and “KCVIP” – KultureCity VIP.

“It’s great to have all these options,” says Chloe, as she and Keller walk down to Rocky Shores to see Keller’s favorite animal: walruses. “Some kids will just use the headphones all the time, and others really need fidget toys or other ways to get calm.”

One in five people in the United States have a disability –and 84 per cent of those disabilities are invisible. Sensory needs or processing issues can affect those with sensory disorders, as well as PTSD, autism, strokes, dementia or other disabilities. People affected by this find noises, smells, lights and even crowds not only overwhelming but sometimes physically painful. Because of this, they often find themselves isolated from the community.

social story peacock
A page from the Zoo’s social story, explaining what guests will see and experience.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium was one of the first venues in Washington to be certified as sensory inclusive with KultureCity, and sister zoo Northwest Trek Wildlife Park is another.

For Keller, skipping happily down the path, mechanical noise can get too stimulating, while for his little brother Knox (who’s also autistic) it’s visual stimulation that can either entrance or bother him. Keller slips on the headphones and delightedly watches sea lions Neah and Matia flip and tumble in the pool.

Chloe’s also a fan of the “social stories” and visual schedules that are now downloadable on the Zoo website: pdfs that help Zoo guests plan ahead of time what they can see and do, and what those experiences will see, sound and feel like.

Blankets and cuddles

Next on Keller’s schedule is the live animal show at the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater. Chloe and Keller stop at the top of the stairs and ask a staff member for a weighted lap pad, a soft baby-blue blanket that’s slightly heavy and as cuddly as a plush toy. Settling onto the seats, Keller clutches it tight as the zookeepers start up the Wild West-themed show onstage.

As Herald the dog rides in on a “train,” Keller, like all the kids, is mesmerized, and when Clark the vulture flies in overhead his eyes are round as saucers.
“Oooh!!” he cries, clapping hard.

Keller watches in glee as Scooter the armadillo, Terra the tamandua, Siesta the sloth and Tilli the aardvark make their appearances, but he’s getting restless, clicking his heels and needing a squeezing hug from Chloe. Halfway through the show Keller’s ready to go, and they head up and out to the budgies.

And that’s where the lanyard comes into play.

Not just welcome, but VIP

sensory boy wearing headphones
Noise-cancelling headphones can also help in over-stimulating situations.

While Keller, like many sensory-needs people, finds wearing a lanyard uncomfortable for too long, it’s already been spotted by budgie keeper Heather Burns, who’s working in the exhibit. Like all Zoo staff, Heather’s been trained in how best to serve those with sensory needs, and she instantly bends down and offers Keller a seed stick, speaking quietly in clear, short phrases about watching – but not touching – the colorful little birds.

The sensory backpack, with the same logo, sends the same visual message of being special, yet valued.

The ability to self-identify as sensory-needs – to both Zoo staff and other guests – is huge, says Chloe.

“That message that you are wanted here, you are welcome here – that’s so valuable,” she says. “Many people wouldn’t come here or other public places because they’re afraid they’ll be made fun of or laughed at. Sadly, that does happen to our kiddos. So the Zoo’s public stance of welcome is so important.”

Volunteer D.J. Irish, who has Asperger syndrome and who’s working at the front gate today, agrees.

“This is a really good thing,” Irish says. “The cards are good, especially for the non-verbal. Washington is said to have the highest rate of autism in the country. That’s an awful lot of people who now have better ways to enjoy the Zoo.”

Sharks and smiles

sensory boy and mom and budgie
Keller and his mom Chloe meet the budgies for the very first time.

It’s crowded and noisy in the budgies habitat with lots of people and birds, so pretty soon it’s time for Keller to leave.

But despite the family having a deluxe membership (that allows the boys’ therapist to do sessions with them there), it’s his first time ever with the tiny, cheerful birds – and clearly, it’s been thrilling for him.

As he and Chloe head up to see the sharks in the South Pacific Aquarium, he’s dancing and smiling – like any kid at the Zoo.

And like any kid, he’s welcome.


FIND OUT MORE: Learn about our sensory-inclusive tools here.

BRING A CAREGIVER: The Zoo offers free admission for a caregiver or aide with one purchased admission or membership. Please show ID at the front gate.