"Can you tell me how to get-
How to Get to Sesame Street?"
On April 2nd, World Autism Day, it was announced that Sesame Place had officially become the world’s first (and currently only!) Autism Certified theme park.
This is great news, but came as no surprise to me.
I’ve loved Sesame Place since I was a kid. I went two or three times between the ages of eight and twelve, with my mom, dad, brother, cousin Jen, who’s my age, and cousin Jackie, who's several years older. I have many happy memories of the Park, and especially enjoyed the water slides. One year my brother got plucked from the audience of a show to perform on a mostly green screen backdrop soundstage, which was made into a short film called "The Amazing Adventures of Elmo and Zoey." (I assume they did this multiple times per day with four or five kids each time, but it was still super cool to have a VHS Sesame Street video with my brother starring alongside Big Bird and friends.) I also remember sitting on the curb with my cousin during the parade, floating down the lazy river, and meeting cute costumed characters.
Three years ago, in the summer of 2015, my mom and I decided to go to Sesame Place again, and this time take with us the kids I’ve been helping to care for since they were four – my now-goddaughter M and her twin brother, B. They were eight then, and the commercials for the Park stressed, “Go before they grow!” so it seemed like a good time.
I was a little worried about it, though. I had anxiety about the wait times in lines, as one of the twins has a particularly difficult time with delayed gratification (more so then than now) and I was also a bit worried because one twin is much braver than the other when it comes to rides and waterslides - what if they refused to try any of the same things? My mom and I figured we could always split them up if taking turns got too tedious.
I also worried about the waterslides - one person can go at a time, which meant either I went first and waited at the bottom for B, or he went first and waited at the bottom for me, as my mom and M wouldn't go on most of them. This caused me the most stress of all... could I trust him out of my sight? What if he needed help and couldn't verbally express it to the staff? What if he bolted and I couldn't find him? But I didn't want to deny him use of them because I knew he'd love going.
My mom and I went online ahead of time to see what, if any, accommodations the Park would make for families with kids who have disabilities and/or “special needs.” We were pleasantly surprise to learn that they have system that allows kids to skip lines for certain rides. Upon arriving, we went straight to a help desk where they hooked us up. I think we might have worn armbands (can’t remember) and I know we had sheets of paper, one per twin, that would be punched off each time they rode one of the rides or waterslides kids could only skip lines for a certain number of times (others had no limit). Our goal was not to need this – to stand in line like everyone else, practicing patience and being rewarded for it by having fun when we reached the front – but sometimes skipping ahead was the best way to ensure a meltdown-free day.
But even better than this were the staff. They were kind, caring, and kid-friendly, but they also seemed to recognize things I wouldn’t have expected, leading to two particularly good moments. First, during one of few moments when my mom wasn’t with us, one twin wanted to get off a certain ride but I needed to stay with the other. I wasn’t sure what to do, as staying on would have one in sensory meltdown mode, and getting off would have the other in confused ‘why am I being punished when I was being good?’ mode. Quickly an employee jumped in – she offered to stand with one twin where I could see them until the other child and I finished the ride and got off. This resulted in great peace of mind for all of us – neither child felt as though they were being forced into anything they couldn’t handle.
Later, while playing a series of carnival-like games, one twin was trying so hard to win a certain stuffed toy, but just couldn’t manage. The directions were difficult to follow and the game required coordination that twin just didn’t have yet. A male employee working at the games told us that twin reminded him of a young relative of his, and offered to help Kiddo do it the way the employee has helped his relative. With his assistance and the special accommodation of being able to move closer to the target he was trying to hit, Kiddo won the toy. The employee didn’t have to do that – it’s important to understand that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose – but I love how he did it. He did not act as though he was simply giving the toy as a consolation or pity prize, but rather offered to modify the activity to give the child a better chance of winning.
At the top and bottom of every waterslide, there are staff members. The waterslides, I should mention, are huge. You often cannot see the top from the bottom, or can barely - if at all - see the bottom from the top. While my mom took M to shows (where they wouldn't get wet or go high or too fast) he and I went on each, just the two of us. First, I would explain briefly about autism to the staff member at the top and make sure they felt comfortable with me going down first, alone, and waiting in the pool for B while he stood at the top of the slide awaiting his turn. I also stressed to him that he had to wait until they said "3-2-1-GO." If they didn't say "3-2-1-GO," he could NOT go. The staff were great about reinforcing this language so he knew the expectations and didn't have to guess or risk getting confused. And he didn't have to talk much. He knew that the reward for following safety directions was being able to keep having fun and the consequence would be that he and I would leave, return to our hotel, and not swim or play with electronics for the rest of the day. I didn't mean to seem harsh, but safety is always always always my number one concern with the kids - with any kids. Safety, then fun, learning, and the like.
Sometimes, at the bottom of the slide, B didn't want to get out of the pool, which posed a problem. Staff were kind about either gently directing him out or allowing me back in to guide him if necessary. When we'd return to the top, staff remembered him, called him by name, and were happy to again count down "3-2-1-GO!" when it was his turn. This not only made for a great day, but it gave him some independence he wouldn't have on, say, a school field trip. I had to trust him to wait until he had permission to go, and he had to trust me to be there every time he reached the bottom. And I am grateful for the staff for their help with that.
We had only one issue with a parent being angry that we were able to jump to the front of a particular line, and I admit I didn't handle it as well as I should have. She very loudly commented on how unfair it is that "these kinds of kids" get to skip ahead when "regular" kids don't. Kiddo had run up to get on (and was out of earshot) so I snapped at the woman, "Well, your kid probably gets invited to birthday parties and will go away to college, so forgive us if we skip one line one time because it makes this kid happy!" This was unfair for several reasons. First, Kiddo might go away to college. Going to an autism school instead of a "typical" school as a kid/teen doesn't mean college is not a possibility in the future, and I shouldn't have perpetuate that myth. Also many kids at his school have their birthday parties right at the school for a variety of reasons, during which there is cake and games and goody-bags. This is just as valid and fun as having a party at someone's home or at a trampoline place or Chuck E. Cheese or a playground, and I feel badly for inadvertently belittling it. But the vitriol and judgement dripping from her voice, the disgusted look on her face as she stared at Kiddo, and the way she said "regular kids," really, really ticked me off, and I snapped.
The staff member, though, hurried over to quietly explain that Sesame Place has special accommodations for kids with special needs, then politely gave the parent the (very quick) education I could have given, while smiling cheerily as I followed Kiddo to the ride. It's nice for autistic people and families not to have to explain autism to every stranger who makes a rude comment or judgment. Having staff do it diffused the tension and hopefully resulted in that other parent understanding better - maybe even having more empathy.
All of those employees, and others we met, treated not just the twins but all kids in their vicinity with compassion and respect. This includes the costumed Muppets. Zoey didn’t seem to mind when kids nearly as tall as her pet her fur like one would a Golden Retriever, or ran up from behind to squeeze her tight. Bert and Abby Cadabby spent a ton of time giving high fives and hugs and and posing for pictures, even when it took an extra couple of minutes because kids were too excited and distracted by seeing their favorite Muppets to turn and stay still for a second for the camera. And the Count was done taking pictures when we made it to his side, so I told the kids maybe next time, but the staff helping said it was okay to grab one quickly – as much as I love Disney, they’re a lot more likely to say no when you're late to the character meet-and-greet line. I totally would’ve understood if Count had to be rushed away, but we appreciated the few extra seconds he spent with us and the cute pictures we captured.
As I said, this was three years ago. Before Sesame Place earned this 'Autism Certified' distinction, and before many of their new measures and training were rolled out. I don’t believe the place had Sensory Rooms back then for overwhelmed kids, but I’ve read that they do now. What an awesome addition! And there's now a Sensory Guide to the rides! I wish we’d had that. But I’m not surprised that their employees have taken the time and made the effort to become better aware of developmental and behavioral differences, which can make all the difference between a difficult day fraught with anxiety and upset and a wonderful one for a family to remember fondly forever.
Sesame Place also has Julia now.
Julia is a relatively new Muppet – interestingly, she was introduced at B’s autism school before she appeared on Sesame Street or in the Park, and we took home a cute stuffed Julia when she made her official debut, so it feels like we go wayyy back with the newest denizen of Big Bird's sunny neighborhood. One of B’s friends from school even appeared in a video explaining autism for Sesame Street (I’ll update when I can find the link). I wish Julia had been roaming the Park when we went – while I had some reservations about her character when she was first announced and unveiled, I like her, and I think she offers positive, accurate autistic representation - though of course, as is true with everyone on the Autism Spectrum, “If you’ve met one Muppet with autism, you’ve met ONE Muppet with autism!”.
(My one complaint is that her early videos are very much about explaining autism to non-autistic kids, which makes them feel a bit less inclusive than they could, but I'm hoping as kids get to know her character she will just be one of the group, a girl kids on the Spectrum can relate to in a distinct, personal way, instead of sometimes seeming more like a learning opportunity for neurotypicals.)
Back to Sesame Place, it’s truly amazing what a difference well-trained staff can make when it comes to visiting large, loud, sensory-overload places like amusement parks.
I had my own experience at Disney World once when I was separated from my family, became overwhelmed, and began to panic. It was during a parade and I was surrounded by people. I started to feel as though I was suffocating – I cried, couldn’t breathe well, might have twitched my hands a bit. I was going into a full-on anxiety attack or meltdown, which had, by some miracle, never happened to me there before (and I’ve been to Disney over a dozen times, in two states and two countries). A staff member rushed out of a closed-up shop and guided me into the empty store, explaining that they kept it closed during the light parade, but he said he could see me through the window and knew I needed assistance. I was able to calm down, drink a little water, and catch my breath, and he let me leave through another door that let out into an emptier area where I could wait out the parade, then find my mother. I wish I hadn’t been too upset in the moment to make better mental note of his name, because I would’ve liked to have reported my gratitude for his actions and words to Disney World customer service later. I hope Disney, which has made great strides in inclusivity for kids who speak various languages, including communicating using American Sign Language, and do wonderful things with kids who have disabilities or illnesses, will someday also hold the distinction of being Autism Certified. And that many other Parks and family-friendly places follow suit.
According to an April 5th article posted on Smithsonian.com (linked at end of blog post), “The entire staff at Sesame Place underwent autism sensitivity and awareness training. In a statement, Sesame Place explains that training must be undertaken every two years, and it focuses on ‘sensory awareness, environment, communication, motor and social skills, program development, and emotional awareness’. A comprehensive autism competency exam is also administered. Certification in hand, when Sesame Place reopens for its 38th season on April 28, it will include two quiet rooms with adjustable lighting and comfortable seating areas where visitors can take a break from the hustle and bustle of the park. The park will also provide noise-canceling headphones for guests with auditory sensitivity. To help families prepare for their visit to the park, Michele Debczak of Mental Floss points out that Sesame Place’s website also offers a sensory guide that ranks the sensory intensity of every ride on a scale from one to 10.”
As I said above, they didn’t have these in place when we went, and yet it was still a great experience – setting the stage for what was to come, I believe. The kids are older now – nearly the same age I was the last time my family went when I was a kid. That year, I still had fun but started to feel silly and insecure about being older than many of the other kids. I would love to take the twins again before they “grow,” as the commercial states (one of them is already taller than I am, though). I think they’ll both enjoy it just as much – or more – now, especially as one twin does so much better with waiting in line and keeping hands to himself, and the other is not quite as fearful of fast rides and getting wet as she once was. In other words, they've grown a lot since then... but hopefully not too much to still enjoy it!
That said, I don’t know that we’ll make it back there this summer, but whether we go ten more times or never again, I can honestly say that Sesame Street was a fantabulous, sensory-friendly theme park with attentive, genuinely caring staff, and I’d recommend it to any family I know, including those with autistic kids or adults who may have struggled with other theme park excursions.
I’m sure these new measures only make it better.
Link to Smithsonian article:
Link to Introduction to Julia: