For most of his life, Heather Shuler’s young son Hampton has not been able to set foot inside an amusement park. Hampton is autistic, and, like many kids with autism spectrum disorders, is extremely sensitive to outside stimuli. The various sights, sounds, and sensations at most amusement parks make them a non-option for Hampton and his family.
“It might mean nothing to us but some [tonal] pitch that he hears that we don’t hear,” Heather told Knoxville’s WATE of her son’s sensitivity, “And it … makes everything in [his] brain start spinning.”
But now, thanks to a new partnership between Dollywood Amusement Park and the non-profit Autism Speaks, Hampton and other kids with similar conditions can now enjoy everything the park has to offer. At the start of July, Dollywood, which is located in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, featured among its many attractions a new calming room, or a place where children with sensory sensitivity can go to decompress and relax if needed. (Here are the autism symptoms parents should look out for.)
Judy Toth, a Dollywood team leader who works in the Ride Accessibility Center, first had the idea for a sensory room when she noticed that families bringing kids with autism spectrum disorders to the park had no designated area to calm their children in the event of sensory overload. According to huffingtonpost.com, she reached out to Autism Speaks, and the organization helped to conceptualize a space that would provide a sense of calm for kids overwhelmed by the park’s atmosphere.
“[It] has very sensory friendly objects in it, ones that kids would be using in their therapies for sensory integration,” says Maeghan Pawley of Autism Speaks. The room’s features include a teepee tent and softly glowing lights.
Dollywood’s Calming Room is the first of its kind in the world, though other theme parks will soon be following suit. In March, the Legoland Florida Resort also formed a partnership with Autism Speaks with plans to make its own park experience more autism-friendly.
As for families with autistic children, many are grateful for this addition. “Something so simple is going to make such a difference for so many,” one parent wrote on Dollywood’s Facebook page, “Thank you for being an example to the world that autism awareness alone isn’t enough, acceptance and inclusion are just as important.