DOWNERS GROVE – Any kid would be lucky to have a parent who works at a zoo, but that’s not the only reason it’s a welcoming place for Downers Grove 14-year-old Justyn Skach.
Brookfield Zoo has made it a point to add features and training to become a place where people on the autism spectrum can feel at ease, and where they can improve social and communication skills. Noise-reducing headphones are available for those who need them, and the zoo offers a “visual schedule book,” a laminated picture book detailing the day’s schedule.
“Autistic children like to know the sequence of events, and what’s gong to happen,” Justyn’s mom Krista Skach said. “They don’t like change, they need to know what’s gong to happen next.”
The zoo has long been one of Justyn’s favorite places, along with museums and libraries. At the zoo, the lions are his favorite, he said.
“They’re the king,” he said. “Like the T-Rex.”
On April 12, he was invited to speak at the zoo and introduce Gov. Pat Quinn at Brookfield Zoo’s Autism Awareness Day.
In a short speech he told the crowd how he, and anyone, can feel welcome there, before introducing the governor.
In addition to the steps taken by the zoo, research has shown the animals themselves can have a calming affect on those with autism.
“Autism is unique in that there’s no cure for it, what you’re striving for is teaching the child to have coping skills,” Krista Skach said. “Any learned behavior that we can teach him that will help calm him, down is a benefit. Just being around an animal, just taking that quiet time to concentrate on the tactile is so important.”
The zoo staff has also been trained on how to respond to a child with autism who may be acting differently than other children his or her age.
“To know that much attention and detail goes into training our staff, it makes me really proud to work for an institution like that,” she said.
In addition to the headphones and visual schedule book, the zoo’s BZ Care Kits include autism stickers safety alert badges and ID bracelets in case a child gets separated from his or her family.
Last year, the zoo ran a special pilot program that opened the grounds an hour early for those with autism and their families.
Zoo Vice President of Public Affairs Matt Mayer said it is looking for a corporate sponsor or donor to make that a regular program.
“This is more than just turning the zoo’s lights blue in support of autism awareness,” he said. “This is about redefining the roles that accredited zoos play in supporting those with autism and their families.”