ORLANDO, Fla. - Families of children with autism and other special needs will see changes at the animal interaction park at Discovery Cove.
Staff at the all-inclusive resort have new autism sensitivity and awareness training to guide guests through sensory experiences at their own pace.
The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) tested and toured the park before its designation as a Certified Autism Center.
The park restricts attendance to about 1,300 guests per day for an intimate, guided tour of the lagoons and animal interactions. One new tool for families is a pre-planning sensory guide that details low-traffic and low-noise areas for guests to take a break.
"Our quiet area is right next to our first-aid area, so if a guest needs something that's temperature-controlled or an area that they're able to adjust lighting," Kyle Miller, the park president of Discovery Cove, said.
Two families working to raise awareness about autism tested out the new sensory experiences at the park.
Marytza Sanz accompanied her 9-year-old grandson, Santiago, who has non-verbal autism.
"When we were coming, everything was OK in the car, and suddenly -- boom," Sanz said as she described what she called an "autism moment."
"It makes you very ansy, because you know that other people around, he's going to be screaming."
She said mornings are tough for her grandson, but with the help of his behavior therapist, Santiago warmed up to the animal encounters and touched an armadillo named Clementine.
In a private cabana, the two animated Go Go Brothers, from YouTube, met an anteater named Simon.
The older brother, who goes by "Rooey" in their animated series, has autism and ADHD.
While snorkeling in the reef, the boys learned about a special plastic screen the park offers for guests uncomfortable with diving underwater.
"We have about 6,000 total fish, around 180 different species," Shannon Zimmerman, the supervisor of aquariums at Discovery Cove, said.
Also included with admission to the park is the Explorer's Aviary, which has high sound ratings in the specialized sensory guide.
"You want to give your kids all the opportunities that any other kid has," Sanz said, while in tears watching Santiago interact with the dolphin. "When he kissed that dolphin, it was unbelievable."
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