Of­fer­ing mes­sage of in­clu­sion

Aquat­ica be­com­ing first wa­ter­park with a cer­ti­fied autism cen­ter.

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Aquat­ica Or­lando wa­ter park be­com­ing autism-friendly By Gabrielle Rus­son

Past the color­ful play­ground where chil­dren splash at the Aquat­ica Or­lando, a new quiet room tries to mute the laugh­ter and the mu­sic from the loud­speaker when ev­ery­thing be­comes too over­whelm­ing.

A few feet away, one of sev­eral ex­panded map signs breaks down the rides, rat­ing them by the five senses, to give par­ents a warn­ing this ride isn’t the right fit for their child.

These re­cent changes at the wa­ter park are meant to send a wel­com­ing mes­sage to people with autism. The re­vamped quiet space, more de­tailed signs and new em­ployee train­ing have helped Aquat­ica be­come the first wa­ter­park with a cer­ti­fied autism cen­ter.

In Or­lando, theme parks and some at­trac­tions of­fer ac­com­mo­da­tions to make people with autism have a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence, but it doesn’t al­le­vi­ate all the ob­sta­cles, ad­vo­cates have said. Dis­ney is fac­ing law­suits af­ter the theme park re­vamped its dis­abil­ity pro­gram for guests wait­ing at at­trac­tions.

Autism is a de­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­der that can af­fect people’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion and so­cial in­ter­ac­tions. But it af­fects people in dif­fer­ent ways, stressed San­dra Worth, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fort My­ers-based My Autism Con­nec­tion non­profit.

“Fam­i­lies want to know they can bring their chil­dren to a place where they’re un­der­stood,” Worth said. “For so many years, we’ve been shunned. We’ve been crit­i­cized be­cause our chil­dren don’t be­have a cer­tain way.”

Aquat­ica vice pres­i­dent David Heaton called the new steps “the right thing to do to el­e­vate our guest ser­vice level in the park.”

Heaton de­clined to say how much the ef­forts cost other than, “We saw this fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment as well-worth it.”

The sen­sory in­for­ma­tion, which ranks the loud­est rides and brightly colored at­trac­tions,

is dis­played promi­nently on the park’s web­site, posted on large maps at the park and also avail­able at guest ser­vices. Even­tu­ally, new signs that could go up by spring break will also ap­pear at ride en­trances, Heaton said.

“It’s a great idea,” said Michelle Mar­tin, a passh­older from St. Cloud who has a teenage son with autism. “It gives par­ents a heads up of what they’re walk­ing into.”

The park al­ready of­fers a pro­gram that lets people with dis­abil­i­ties skip the lines for free on some at­trac­tions.

Those who need a break from what can be a loud park can re­treat to the quiet room near the first aid sta­tion that’s been re­cently ren­o­vated.

Pre­vi­ously, the pri­vate space with a locked door was ex­clu­sively used as a room for nurs­ing moth­ers. Now, it will be du­alpur­pose room af­ter Aquat­ica up­graded it and added sev­eral sen­sory-friendly toys.

On a busy day, the health ser­vices build­ing also of­fers pri­vate spa­ces if the quiet room is in high de­mand, Heaton said.

For the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, 80 per­cent of Aquat­ica’s em­ploy­ees who work with the pub­lic must un­dergo the 30-minute train­ing — which will be on­go­ing as em­ploy­ees turn over, Heaton said. Man­agers at the park are ed­u­cated in a full-day train­ing ses­sion.

The train­ing is de­signed to teach Aquat­ica em­ploy­ees how people with autism may re­act and to be more em­pa­thetic, said Mered­ith Tekin, pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Board of Cre­den­tial­ing and Con­tin­u­ing Ed­u­ca­tion Stan­dards, which works with or­ga­ni­za­tions in the tourism, hos­pi­tal­ity and other in­dus­tries to be­come cer­ti­fied in autism and spe­cial needs.

IBCCES de­vel­oped its ev­i­dence-based train­ing through its ad­vi­sory board, which has at least 10 mem­bers and is rep­re­sented by people on the autism spec­trum, neu­rol­o­gists, be­hav­ior ther­a­pists and oth­ers, Tekin said.

“This is above and be­yond the reg­u­lar train­ing,” Tekin said of Aquat­ica. “They’re re­ally lead­ing the in­dus­try. We don’t use that term lightly.”

The train­ing has al­ready paid off, said Tina Guarnieri, 25, of Win­ter Gar­den, who works as an Aquat­ica guest ar­rival am­bas­sador.

Re­cently, Guarnieri showed the sen­sory guide and where the quiet room was to a fam­ily with an child who has autism.

“It opens all of our eyes up how we can be more help­ful,” she said.

GABRIELLE RUS­SON PHO­TOS/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

A sign for the newly con­verted quiet room at Aquat­ica Or­lando.

Aquat­ica vice pres­i­dent David Heaton shows off one of the new maps at the wa­ter park that shows for the first time de­tailed sen­sory in­for­ma­tion on the at­trac­tions.

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