Families of children with autism or sensory processing disorders can now find it easier to spend time at the Greenville Zoo. 

A new initiative partners the Greenville Zoo with KultureCity, a nonprofit organization that provides accessibility solutions for individuals with sensory disorders, to take several steps to make the zoo a better fit for families of children with special sensory needs.

Zoo staff members have been trained in awareness of sensory needs and have a better understanding of how to make the zoo experience a more enjoyable one for families. 

“Birmingham Zoo is the first to take this on with KultureCity, which is based in Birmingham,” Lynn Watkins, Education Curator at the Greenville Zoo, said.

Staff members learned about the program at a conference and Watkins said it resonated with everyone. 

“Even prior to that, we had sensitivity to people on the spectrum,” she said. “They are welcome in our camps. A lot of times, they have a shadow with them.”

Several adults with autism spectrum disorders also volunteer at the zoo. 

The new program makes sensory bags available at the ticket booth and the gift shop that guests can check out for free. The bags include noise canceling headphones to help with unexpected noises, fidget toys, a “feelings card” with drawings of faces to help non-verbal children relay their emotions and a lanyard with the KultureCity icon on it to help zoo staff identify visitors with sensory issues and respond quickly if they see someone having a difficult time.

Jennifer Garcia, Education Program Coordinator at the Greenville Zoo, said the program helps children navigate a very sensory rich environment.

“A lot of our exhibits aren’t hands-on, but they are still very sensory driven,” she said. “This can help parents plan. It tells our community that we are willing to try. It’s impossible to be totally inclusive but we are willing to ask, ‘What do you need? How can we help?’”

In addition to the sensory bags, signs now identify quiet areas that typically have less activity and “headphone zones” to cue visitors to use the noise canceling headphones in areas that may be noisy. Both will be highlighted on zoo maps to make it easier for visitors to locate them.

Watkins said it has been easy to implement the program and that other organizations are talking with them about adding it as well.

“We’re willing to keep growing,” she said. “This is another step in the right direction.”

Parents can download the free KultureCity app from the App Store or Google Play. For sensory inclusive locations, including the Greenville Zoo, the app highlights features such as sensory bags, quiet areas and headphone zones, and provides a social story to describe the sights, sounds and situations that guests may encounter.

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