Santa Barbara Zoo Now a Certified Autism Center

Young Visitors Can Retreat to New Quite Zones and Rent 'Sensory Backpacks' with Squeeze Toys, Noise-Canceling Headphones

Santa Barbara Zoo Autism Certification Team (from left): David Velazquez, Aaron Marshall, J.J. McLeod, Dean Noble, and Nancy McToldridge
Courtesy Photo

Going to the zoo is a rite of passage for many Santa Barbara families, but loud noises and large crowds can pose problems for children on the autism spectrum. The Santa Barbara Zoo, with its new accreditation as a Certified Autism Center, is trying to change that.

The zoo’s menagerie will be the first Certified Autism Center on the West Coast, according to Julia McHugh, the zoo’s director of public relations. Staff has been trained through a program put on by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards on how to work with kids who have different sensory needs. Visitors will have access to designated quiet zones, where there is less foot traffic, and can rent “sensory backpacks” filled with squeeze toys, noise-canceling headphones, a fidget cube, and a scavenger hunt list.

Having these amenities, according to Zoo School Director J.J. MacLeod, will help young people on the autism spectrum have a more meaningful experience. “Walking into the zoo, there could be a gift shop, talking on the loudspeaker, music, animals making lots of noise, or train rides,” MacLeod said. “There’s so much overload.”

MacLeod was inspired by a similar program at Pennsylvania’s Sesame Place, which in April was certified as the first theme park to offer a modified experience for guests with sensory needs. A “light went off,” she said, and as the parent of a child on the spectrum, she saw a chance to offer kids an educational and therapeutic visit.

“Our mission at the zoo is to support all living things in the natural world,” MacLeod said. “That’s something we take to heart here — becoming more inclusive and advocating for different members of our community.”

An updated accessibility webpage with a map of quiet zones will be up on the zoo’s website soon.

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