Big news from the world of Sesame Street: Langhorne, Pa. theme park Sesame Place is now a Certified Autism Center, thanks to a partnership with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). The announcement arrived on World Autism Awareness Day on April 2; when the park opens for its 38th season on April 28, 2018 — right at the end of National Autism Awareness Month — it will bear the distinction of being the first theme park ever to be a CAC. “As the first theme park in the world to complete the training and become a CAC, Sesame Place is better equipped to offer families inclusive activities for children with autism and other special needs,” Sesame Place park president Cathy Valeriano said in to InPark Magazine. She added, “We’re dedicated to providing all of our guests with an exceptional and memorable experience. We look forward to applying this training and expanding our commitment to help spread awareness about autism.”
Since 2001, IBCCES has been a leader in autism training for healthcare and education professionals. Said IBCCES Board Chairman Myron Pincomb to InPark Magazine, “IBCCES works with leading travel destinations to create safe, sensory-compatible travel options for parents and individuals on the spectrum. Our Certified Autism Center designation is awarded to premier organizations around the globe that have completed rigorous training and meet the highest industry standards.” Continued Pincomb, “Sesame Place is ideal because of its accessibility to families and convenient location, as well as everything the organization has done to be inclusive for all. The CAC certification helps give parents and other guests on the spectrum peace of mind when visiting a new destination or attraction.”
All Certified Autism Centers are required to have “at least 80 percent of staff… trained and certified in the field of Autism,” according to IBCCES; as such, Sesame Place’s Team members have undergone “specialized training to ensure they have the requisite knowledge, skills, temperament, and expertise to cater to all children.” Areas of focus for this training include “sensory awareness, motor skills, autism overview, program development, social skills, communication, environment, and emotional awareness,” states Sesame Place’s website; additionally, the training will be ongoing, recurring every two years in order for the park to maintain its certification.
Additional resources will also be available to park-goers, such as designated quiet rooms with adjustable lighting, noise-cancelling headphones, and low-sensory areas intended to provide environments for patrons in need of a break. What’s more, a sensory guide created in conjunction with IBCCES will help visiting families plan their trips to the park, offering images and descriptions of the rides and attractions along with sensory level rankings detailing the intensity of the attractions on a scale of one to 10 for each of the five senses (touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight). A sensory level of one indicates low sensory stimulation, while a sensory level of 10 indicates high sensory stimulation.
Sesame Street has been working with members of the autistic community and self-advocates for several years now to incorporate autism education and advocacy into their work. In 2015, Sesame Workshop announced the Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing In All Children initiative aimed at destigmatizing autism and providing tools and resources for educators, caregivers, and families. The initiative also included the introduction of Julia, the first autistic Sesame Street character; developed with input from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Julia first appeared in digital content before making her debut on television in 2017.
Julia Bascom (whose name is only incidentally similar to the Sesame Street character’s), executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, noted to Slate in 2017 that her organization reached out to Sesame Street after the See Amazing In All Children initiative was first announced. “There tends to be a trend when groups talk about autism to leave out autistic people from that conversation, which, obviously, my organization and self-advocates generally think is a big problem,” she said. In working with Sesame Workshop, said Bascom, “We wanted to be sure, in keeping with the title of the initiative, that the portrayal was positive and respectful and included Julia’s strengths and what she’s like as a person. We didn’t want to show her as an educational object or an object of pity or a burden on the people around her. And Sesame was very on board with that. I think you could see that that’s how they approach their work generally, which was great to see.”
Although it’s true that much of Julia’s introductory episode comes from a neurotypical perspective, the character was created with both autistic children and neurotypical children in mind. “Our big point was always just pushing and pushing and pushing to remember that autistic kids are going to be watching Sesame Street as well,” Bascom told Slate. “The audience is not solely nonautistic peers or families.” Accordingly, said Bascom, Julia has a lot of agency, and she’s constantly communicating, whether it’s through words or through body language; meanwhile, other characters “[model] respectful and inclusive behavior.” When it comes to Julia’s mannerisms, Bascom observed, “My understanding is that they went for things that are fairly common and fairly visible, while also being careful to say this is what autism is like for Julia” — both validating Julia's experience and acknowledging that it might be different for other people.
The key that will determine the initiative’s success, said Bascom, will be “whether or not Julia is integrated into episodes going forward and background moments where autism isn’t talked about.” She noted, “A lot of shows are good at doing a special episode about a character with a disability and then the character never comes back” — but, she continued, “What’s most important in terms of representation and in terms of having a transformative effect is just seeing the character over and over again in everyday situations.”
Ensuring that Sesame Place is accessible to children with a variety of different needs bodes well for Sesame Street's efforts. As Romper’s Gillian Walters wrote recently, amusement parks often don’t do well when it comes to accommodating kids with disabilities (even though kids are typically a target demographic for these destinations); Sesame Place already had a reputation for doing better than most, as a number of pieces written by parents of autistic kids can attest to, but the fact that they’re taking the extra effort to make sure their staff are trained to interact with autistic kids in a way that’s comfortable for them, to offer guidance to parents about what each ride will be like from a sensory perspective, and to provide quiet areas and other resources to those who might need them speaks to the value placed on inclusivity.
Sesame Place opens for the 2018 season on April 28. You can find more about the park’s Certified Autism Center status here.