Venues work to include people sensitive to sensory overload

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A nonprofit organization that helps open doors for people with autism has certified the aquarium and zoo in New Orleans as sensory inclusive.

The Aquarium of the Americas is the first aquarium to get such certification, and the Audubon Zoo is among the first 10 zoos, according to KultureCity , based in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Birmingham Zoo was the test bed for its program, which includes training staffers and volunteers, setting up quiet spaces, and providing "sensory bags" with a "KC VIP" tag on a lanyard, noise-canceling headphones, "fidget toys" and other items, said co-founder and CEO Julian Maha, an emergency room physician and father of an autistic 10-year-old.

KultureCity has certified 40 to 50 attractions around the country, including six NBA arenas, two NFL stadiums and several science museums, Maha said. Another 25 to 30, including the New England Aquarium, probably will be certified within a month, he said.

Roger Torbert, the Birmingham Zoo's vice president for education, said his zoo uses two pre-training incidents as examples of what not to do. In one, he said, a grandmotherly volunteer put her arm around a weeping little girl and was bitten. In the other, a zookeeper walked up to a boy who'd been reported missing with a loud, cheery, "Hey, buddy!"

"The little boy kicked him in the shins and ran away," Torbert said.

Now, he said, staffers and volunteers know to get down to a child's level, give choices in a quiet voice, and try to look them in the eye without expecting the look to be returned. The most important lesson, he said, is showing parents that they understand what's happening and will do what they can to help.

"Regardless of what's going on, the parent is the expert on that child," Torbert said.

He said the zoo has six sensory bags and about 50 bag checkouts per quarter.

"Feedback from parents is that oftentimes the items in the bag are things they already have, but knowing we have them, they know know we're more open to them being here," Torbert said.

The Cleveland Cavaliers' home court was the first NBA arena certified, Maha said. He said that when a fireworks-induced flashback upset an Afghan War veteran who'd come to a Cavs' home game, someone who'd been through the training spotted his "KC VIP" tag, asked if he needed a quiet place to relax, and showed him to a specially designed quiet room where he calmed himself down.

KultureCity also helps develop website features to help guests plan their visits and know what to expect.

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