Philadelphia Zoo marks 20 years of connecting the local autism community

Dawn Powell has attended the annual Autism Awareness Day at the Philadelphia Zoo for the past eight years — Sunday marked the event’s 20th anniversary.

For Powell, whose 12-year-old son Anthony was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old, coming back each year is a way to observe a sense of community.

“In the beginning, it’s hard every day,” she explained.

When Anthony first got his diagnosis, his mother said he would often run away from her, so she had to find ways to keep him close.

“A lot of times, people will look at you like, ‘Oh, you have your kid on a leash, why would you do that?’” she said.

The same judgment applied to instances where Anthony was in sensory overload. To outsiders, Anthony would appear to be having a “meltdown,” said Powell.

She says they got kicked out of movie theaters — this is before they discovered sensory-friendly screenings — because people didn’t understand why Anthony was talking over certain parts of animated films or covering his ears.

“People tend to look at you and talk,” Powell said.

But at Autism Awareness Day at the zoo, Powell says there’s none of that.

“To have people who get it and don’t give you those judgmental stares or whispers or anything else, just the reassuring looks or the ‘I get it’ or the people who want to lend a hand — it’s just nice to be around,” she said.

Hundreds of people streamed through the Peacock Pavillion starting 10 a.m. for face painting and free superhero posters, before making their way through the animal exhibits.

The event featured entertainers in costume as Peppa Pig, Mario from Mario Bros., and Iron Man. There were also jugglers and musicians who thought to cover the sound system and dampen the music just enough to be heard, but not enough to overwhelm attendees who might have sensitivity to light and sound.

Patti Erickson is president of the Autism Society of Greater Philadelphia — she has a 28-year-old daughter on the spectrum — and has come to every Autism Awareness Day at the zoo for the past 20 years.

Erickson said the event’s focus was different 20 years ago.

“What we were trying to do was create awareness, teach people what autism is, but actually give all the families that were affected a place to get together, meet each other and form their sense of community, and know there were other people out there,” she said.

Noah Creed, 8, poses with Nicole Gonzales as Bell, and Caroline Nowak as Snow White at the 20th Annual Autism Awareness Day at the Philadelphia Zoo. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

Now there are other autism-centered spaces and events hosted by several cultural institutions in Philadelphia and across the country, and the diagnosis is more widely spoken about, said Erickson.

Organizers say they are shifting their efforts to promote inclusion, employment, and acceptance with the event.

“If you see all the ribbons and people walking around the zoo, a lot of people are like, ‘Wow, a lot of people are really here for that. Maybe I want to know more,’” said Erickson, who claimed as many as 10,000 people have attended on certain years.

“When I walk around, I talk to people, we share our experiences. We share different things we might have learned,” said Ashley Burden from North Philadelphia. This is the third year she’s come to Autism Awareness Day with her 7-year-old daughter Sophia who’s on the spectrum.

Based on experience going to similar events, Burden says this one at the Philly Zoo draws the widest net of resources for people with autism.

More than a dozen organizations from across the city gave out information about support groups and educational opportunities. There was even someone from the Social Security Administration explaining how children with disabilities and limited resources could be eligible for Supplemental Security Income.

“Every time I come here, someone’s like, ‘Oh, check out this table, check out this information,’” Burden said.

Ericka Ojeda, 10, plays with kinetic sand at the sensory table at the 20th Annual Autism Awareness Day at the Philadelphia Zoo. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

Other stations included sensory boxes of neon-colored kinetic sand, plastic beads, and pom poms — all with toys inside.

Children with autism can often experience a sensory overload, whether it involves tastes, smells, sounds, or touch.

Organizers said these sensory boxes help some people with sensitivity to certain textures become more comfortable.

“My daughter is having a great time with the sensory sand station, so I think we’ll have to drag her away at some point,” said Nicole Day who came from Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County. Her 4-year-old daughter Cora was diagnosed with high-functioning autism within the past year.

Day said this and similar events have helped her learn what has helped other parents sooth their children, such as weighted blankets, but most of all, she likes seeing Cora have fun playing at the various stations.

Volunteer Erin Clemens, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when she was 15. Now at 30 years old, she thinks if there had been more events like this around when she was growing up, she would have had an easier time getting the help she needed.

Growing up, Clemens said people would often question her diagnosis because she was verbal.

“These events really bring that awareness to people that it might not be as known to them that it is a spectrum,” she said.

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