Several attractions in the Tampa Bay and Central Florida areas are accommodating and entertaining for kids with autism. Check out these autism-friendly vacation ideas that the whole family will enjoy.
Corbyn Cazzola can be himself when he’s at Glazer Children’s Museum each month.
He doesn’t have pressure to be like any of the other kids or his younger brother.
He doesn’t have to stop at all the stations. He can linger in one area for as long as he likes.
His sensitivity to sounds and lights and sometimes other people that come with being autistic are acknowledged and understood.
Here, once a month at this Tampa museum, Corbyn is with other autistic children for Sunshine Sundays. Finding attractions, entertainment outlets and autism-friendly vacations is difficult, especially in these days when everything bleeps, whirrs and takes you upside down.
“The staff is great. They know how to interact with my son,” said Heather Cazzola of Tampa. “They have a lot of patience.”
Many of the Sunshine Sunday guests are repeat visitors because of how well the event is run.
“They’ve done their research on how to make their facility more accommodating to kids with sensory issues,” said Ally Duran of Palm Harbor, mother to Sammy Duran, 5, who was diagnosed with autism about three years ago.
Bright lights, big crowds, long lines and loud noises are often hard for children with autism to process. The calmer the setting, the easier and more enjoyable a time children will have. Too much stimulation results in shutdowns or meltdowns.
Following, from parents and autism experts, are some tips on Central Florida attractions that make a great base for autism-friendly vacations.
“Everyone needs a break,” Duran said.
1. The Florida Aquarium
The Florida Aquarium in Tampa has worked closely with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida to be in tune with the needs of families who have a child with autism. That includes offering online story boards to acquaint the child with an upcoming trip to The Florida Aquarium and the types of things they might see and experience.
“It’s perfect for him. It is quiet, even with a crowd on a Saturday,” Duran said. “The motion of the sea life is very calming for Sam. He’ll sit in front of that giant window for 45 minutes, and I let him. There’s no pressure to get in or get out.”
The Florida Aquarium also offers break areas (second-floor lobby and outside balconies) and ear plugs to help with noise management.
“The break areas allow families to get away from the noise if needed, a very important and appreciated feature if a child is having a meltdown,” said Katherine Claytor, public relations manager for the aquarium. “Often, going into these ‘break areas’ allow an individual to calm themselves down, and then afterward continue with the experience.”
In addition, The Florida Aquarium recommends its hands-on opportunities (all except the Ocean Commotion) for autistic children.
“Aquariums, in general, tend to be calming for those individuals with sensory challenges,” Claytor said. “No medical-specific diagnosis, but it widely accepted that it is because of the slow movement, predictability, and tactile-interaction exhibits.”
ZooTampa also has worked closely with CARD to create an autism-friendly environment.
The zoo offers story boards and downloadable maps on its website to prepare children for what they might see or do at the zoo, such as alligator feeding, a petting zoo and washing one’s hands. Planning helps alleviate anxiety that many autistic children tend to have about new places.
3. Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Each autistic child reacts differently to animals and zoo environments. A couple of parents mentioned their children enjoyed Central Florida Zoo in Sanford because the animal attractions are close together. At $15 for adults and $11 for children, the price is also reasonable, especially if you have to cut your trip short or keep it to a couple of hours.
4. Dinosaur World
Dinosaur World has hands-on, tactile displays, such as fossil digs and playgrounds. It also is aimed primarily at preschoolers and early grade schoolers so it’s not usually crowded, particularly on weekday mornings.
It also offers an online guide parents and autistic children can read together to prepare for their upcoming visit. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for children.
At Sunshine Sundays, admission is discounted to $5 per person. Each month features several activities geared toward special-needs children, such as painting with salt or cinnamon-scented paints.
It also offers an online guide that can be read before an upcoming visit.
With some preparation, Disney theme parks can be a possibility for kids with autism, but you know what your child is able to handle. Do not expect to spend a full day at one park. You will likely need to break it up with a trip back to the hotel or to a water park.
The newer play areas at Magic Kingdom -- sprinkler zones, climbing areas, playgrounds -- offer a much-needed respite for parents and kids alike, particularly children with autism.
“We know where all the quiet places are,” Duran said of Disney.
Some other ideas: first aid station for some air conditioning and rest, pen lights for dark rides, companion restrooms, ear plugs for louder rides or shows and maybe a grab bag with some favorite snacks and comfort toys.
“I think one of the most important things is to keep a regular routine,” said Deb Wills, who founded the AllEars.net in 1996 to help with planning a trip to Walt Disney World.
In addition, the AMC theater in Downtown Disney offers monthly sensory-friendly movies.
A blogger’s tips for visiting Disney
Jackie Psarianos, whose son is 14 years old, maintains a blog called The Autistic World of Disney. She offers the following additional tips for autism-friendly vacations to Disney:
Long lines: Bring an e-tablet loaded with pictures of the attractions you will be visiting. Also, upload sensory games on an e-tablet the child can play with while in line. Snacks are also good. Use FastPass as much as possible.
Rides to think about: Indiana Jones Spectacular AT Disney Hollywood Studios; Lights, Motor and Action at Disney Hollywood Studios; Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom.
Fireworks: Try viewing from a distance, where the noises aren't so loud, or visit a gift shop until they are over.