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Brookfield Zoo Goes Blue for Autism Awareness
Ground-breaking Innovative Pilot Project Announced

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that one in 68 children are diagnosed on the autism spectrum—a 30 percent increase in the last two years. Additionally, a recent study found that the presence of an animal can significantly increase positive social behaviors among children with autism spectrum disorder. In light of this data, on Saturday, April 12, Brookfield Zoo hopes to provide a family-focused and animal-centric day to help children with autism connect with wildlife and nature.

During the zoo’s Autism Awareness Day, families can enjoy special Zoo Chats. These informal talks with zookeepers allow guests to get up-close views of many of the animals, including polar bears, a tamandua (a small anteater), snakes, and a red-tailed hawk, among others. For chat times and locations, visit the zoo’s events page at www.CZS.org/events.

“We strive to foster an environment at Brookfield Zoo that is inclusive of everyone,” said Matthew Mayer, vice president of public affairs for the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages Brookfield Zoo. “We are pleased to support families affected by autism by providing an opportunity to engage in a meaningful experience at the zoo.”

To enhance the zoo experience for families with an individual on the autism spectrum, the zoo offers several adaptive tools that can be downloaded from the zoo’s website prior to a visit. These include a visual schedule, which can help prepare a guest for what his or her visit will entail with the aid of images. Parents can also access a social story about the zoo’s Living Coast exhibit that, through illustrations and written descriptions, will help in preparing a child for what he or she will see and may feel when visiting that particular exhibit.

In addition, the zoo now features BZ Care Kits that can be checked out during a zoo visit. These kits include noise-reducing headphones, hard copies of visual schedules, autism stickers, and safety alert badges and ID bracelets in case a child gets separated from his or her family.

“Autism Speaks is thrilled to partner with Brookfield Zoo again this year on this wonderful initiative that provides families in our community a safe and autism friendly way to enjoy the zoo,” said Kerry Schlaack, executive director for Autism Speaks Chicagoland.

This is not the first time Brookfield Zoo has partnered with Autism Speaks to raise awareness of this spectrum disorder, which affects more than two million people in the United States. In the fall of 2013, the Society launched an innovative pilot project, which was the first of its kind to offer social integration and zoo animal interactions for early learners with autism spectrum disorder to gauge what, if any, role the zoo could play in supporting or even advancing the developmental milestones of early learners, specifically children between the ages of 3 and 6.

The groundbreaking project, which was in partnership with Easter Seals Joliet, was based on two pieces of evidential research, which found that the presence of an animal can significantly increase positive social behaviors among children with autism spectrum disorder and that inclusive learning/experiential environments support the development of adaptive behaviors and communication.
The project demonstrated considerable promise in significantly improving the lives of those affected by autism. Based on feedback from parents, Easter Seals therapists, and the Society’s education staff, the zoo hopes to transition the pilot project to a permanent program in the near future.

“We want to redefine the role that accredited zoos play in supporting the developmental needs of children with autism,” said Mayer. “Our goal is to build an inclusive conservation movement while enriching the lives of individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities.”

In recognition of the Chicago Zoological Society’s efforts, Cook County Commissioners adopted a resolution at their meeting today, April 8, 2014, highlighting the Society’s work with individuals with disabilities, including the groundbreaking autism pilot program at Brookfield Zoo.