April is National Autism Awareness Month. There are many ways people spread awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), such as hosting special fundraisers, wearing blue or posting photos of the iconic colorful puzzle pieces. On World Autism Awareness Day, which was April 2 this year, Sesame Place decided to kick it up a notch and announce it is officially designated as a Certified Autism Center (CAC).
The Bucks County children’s amusement park is the first theme park in the world to achieve CAC status.
Sesame Place partnered with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), a global leader in online training and certification programs, to train its staff in sensory awareness, motor skills, autism overview, program development, social skills, communication and environmental and emotional awareness.
ASD is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC approximates that one in every 68 children has been identified as being on the spectrum and that children can be diagnosed as young as 2 years old. People with ASD often communicate and interact in ways that are different from most people. They also have different methods of learning and reacting to stimuli.
According to Sesame Place’s April 2 Facebook announcement, “It’s our goal to provide every family with an enjoyable and memorable visit.”
In addition to training the staff, the park has added new features to assist families and those children on the autism spectrum. According to the website, there are two new quiet rooms set up near Big Bird’s Rambling River ride. These rooms contain adjustable lighting and comfortable seating to offer relief from sensory overstimulation. The park also offers noise-canceling headphones for those who may have difficulty with loud sounds.
One of the recent additions is the Ride Accessibility Program, which will match the individual abilities of each guest to the requirements of each ride, so guests can fully enjoy the park while keeping the safety requirements in mind. For guests with special needs, the park offers an accessibility guide that provides an overview of services and facilities available for all guests.
Sesame Place’s website, sesameplace.com, also gives tips on where to find low-sensory areas and for low-sensory parade viewing for those guests who would prefer a quieter setting or to not be hugged by the characters. They also offer suggestions for quieter dining options and a link to a website specializing in travel options and resources for those with autism.
This new certification comes a year after the Sesame Street television program introduced Julia, a 4-year-old character with autism. She first appeared in digital form in 2015 but made it to the screen in April 2017 as part of Sesame Street’s effort to destigmatize autism and help children with autism feel less alone and more comfortable with themselves. Julia doesn’t talk much but will often echo what she hears her friends say. She’s shy, and it’s hard to get her attention sometimes. When asked about Julia’s mannerisms, Abby Cadabby, a 3-year-old fairy and Julia’s friend, said it best: “That’s just Julia being Julia.”
According to a recent Newsday article, HBO and PBS Kids aired a television special April 9 titled “Shape Hunt” in which Julia plays a shape-spotting game with some of the other beloved Sesame Street characters. The special was 30 minutes long and helped to further familiarize the world with Julia and her abilities.
Sesame Place has partnered with Variety, The Children’s Charity for many years to host an exclusive special off-season day for children with special needs and their families. This year’s Variety Day is 11 a.m.-5 p.m. April 22. Sesame Place’s official opening day is April 28.
In 2015, Sesame Workshop developed a nationwide initiative called Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children. They have worked with parents, people who serve the autism community and people with autism to offer families different approaches and methods to manage common challenges, simplify everyday activities and grow connections and support within the family and community. The initiative is aimed at communities with children ages 2 to 5. For more information, families can go to autism.sesamestreet.org.