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Animal Magic: The Alchemy of Accessibility at Elmwood Park Zoo

This animal adventure is more accessible than ever thanks to Elmwood Park Zoo's singular designation as a Certified Autism Center.

In childhood, a visit to the zoo is iconic, thrilling beyond measure, and for many of us, stamped permanently in our memories. With the excitement of discovery, we get close to wild and exotic creatures for the first time. And each zoo experience, as we grow, educates and stimulates and broadens our understanding of the richly inhabited world we live in and the interconnectedness of all living things. We carry that feeling of awe and wonder home with us each time, and if we’re lucky, it stays with us for life.

But what if the excitement that makes such an impression on us – the throngs of zoo-goers, the animal cries, the smells of the habitats, the busyness – what if that impression pressed on us too deeply? What if the sights and sounds got in the way of the fun? 

For kids on the autism spectrum, the collection of sensory stimuli at a zoo can be so overwhelming that it turns into stress, anxiety, and even sensory overload. For their parents, a zoo trip is a hurdle too difficult to navigate. But now, with an innovative forward leap, Elmwood Park Zoo has become the first zoo in the world to earn certification as a Certified Autism Center. As of May of 2018, the zoo experience is made accessible through this newly opened door.

“A Certified Autism Center (CAC) is a facility or organization in which at least 80% of the staff is highly trained, fully equipped, and certified in the field of autism.  These organizations and individuals are committed to ongoing training and education to remain experts in the field.”

“The zoo is a place where families come together, where school trips happen,” says Laura Houston, Director of Education at Elmwood Park Zoo, where the spotlight is on learning and programming, as well as conservation and environmentalism. “We’re a family here, and we extend that to our guests. Community is important. We want to welcome all of our community members. All family members.”

Laura Houston, Director of Education at Elmwood Park Zoo

Laura and her colleagues at Elmwood have worked hard towards greater inclusivity and accessibility for the zoo, inspired simply by observation and identifying a need. Well before the recent designation as a Certified Autism Center, Elmwood put a program in place to enhance the zoo experience for visually impaired guests, offering free guided, narrated tours, and dedicated training for staff. 

This same attention has been carried over into the now Certified Autism Center, with a multilayered support system that includes staff preparation, tangible materials as well as physical structures, and planning within the zoo. 

In order to complete that planning, the zoo as a whole underwent rigorous education, training, and restructuring to meet the needs of autistic guests with sensitive sensory systems. Because the combination of sights, sounds, and smells can translate into stress and deep anxiety for many autistic persons, the key was to reduce some areas of stimuli, clearing the way for guests’ focus to return to the animals.

Laura Houston and Oliver

“Animals create a great empathy bond with children on the special needs spectrum.” says Laura Houston.  “Animals are safe. Think about it – some of our first best friends are animals, in books and movies, even stuffed animals – those are safe, comfortable friends. For children on the spectrum, we can create opportunities to make that connection.” 

Parents can now enjoy the zoo experience with sensory-sensitive children more fully, with the added assurance that members of staff on all levels, from public-facing employees to those working behind-the-scenes, are trained in identifying special needs guests and offering support if needed. Elmwood Park Zoo has created a well-prepared, safe, and judgment-free environment for all.  

Along with staff preparedness, the zoo helps families enjoy a successful zoo visit with:

Designated, multi-use quiet space– This gated area, in the zoo’s most peaceful spot, allows guests a place to land and decompress. For sensitive sensory systems, this kind of oasis can make all the difference between a positive zoo experience and a stressful one.

This gated quiet area is reserved for those with sensory sensitivities and other special needs.

Accessibility materials– An accessibility map, a sensory guide, and a social narrative help prepare and guide guests through the zoo with important insight where crowded areas, noise, bright lights, and strong odors might be found. With this kind of ‘heads-up’ parents can steer their families in the best direction to avoid overstimulation. All are available for download even before your visit, so you can plan ahead. 

This sensory guide, map, and social narrative help visiting families prepare for a visit and avoid overly stimulating areas in the park.

Sensory backpacks– Free to check out for a full day’s use, each sensory backpack includes noise cancelling headphones, fidget toys, a stress ball, thinking putty and laminated copies of EPZ’s Social Story, sensory map, and sensory guide. These tools can help kids on the spectrum reduce anxiety and manage overly stimulating situations. 

Elmwood’s free-for-the-day sensory backpack

Early access mornings and quiet evenings– These designated time slots open to special needs guests with families and caregivers provide relaxing space before the zoo opens to the general public or after hours, to interact with the animals, amongst safe staff. Discounted admission is offered, there will be friendly animals to meet, and zoo staff is available for questions and assistance.

Kara Kupuck, feeding the giraffes

Tips for your visit– This thoughtfully compiled list on Elmwood Park Zoo’s Accessibility and Amenities webpage offers strategic points of interest for sensory systems and other special needs.  

With all of these resources in place, Elmwood Park Zoo is watching attendance of special needs families begin to grow. The surrounding community has embraced and supported the new designation as a Certified Autism Center, and the zoo is now forging partnerships with more organizations that cater to special needs families, with continued plans for the future.

“We’re learning, we’re growing, we’re always open to suggestions and improvement,” says Laura. “We’re committed to continuing to explore, and we’ll be incorporating even more technology going forward. It’s all about being welcoming to all of our community.” 

Maddi Sloan with sun conures at a hand-feeding demonstration

Learn more about Elmwood Park Zoo and its many educational programs and camps, including accessible, special needs camps with a certified special education teacher and counselor. Students of all needs are welcomed to any Elmwood Park Zoo camp program.

“Elmwood Park Zoo is dedicated to providing the community with varied learning experiences that encourage people to play an active role in wildlife and environmental conservation activities. Through the work of its Education Department, the zoo strives to empower its guests with the skills, knowledge and resources that may influence them to lead environmentally healthy lives.” 

This sponsored story by Karen Barbuscia supports the Main Line Parent community.

Photography courtesy of Amrit Gluck, Perfectly Paired Photography


Founded in 1924, Elmwood Park Zoo welcomes thousands of visitors each year for an educational adventure in a fun, clean, and family-oriented environment.