Autism-certified Sesame Place leads accessibility push among amusement parks, other sites

Sesame Place – Julia-11042018-0001
Julia, a Sesame Place character who has autism

Camera icon Doreen Swerdloff
Steven Merwin, 22, of Bayville, N.J., on a Halloween visit to Sesame Place in Langhorne, Bucks County

At 22, Steven Merwin doesn’t talk much. He can’t walk more than a quarter-mile on his own. He not only has low-functioning autism, his mother said, but he also suffers from serious medical problems that have plagued him since he was a child.

At Sesame Place, however, Merwin sings. When he sees Elmo, or one of his other favorite characters, he jumps out of his wheelchair to greet them.

For more than a decade, the Langhorne amusement park has been an oasis for Merwin – and a godsend for his mother, Doreen Swerdloff. She and Merwin have made the one-hour-plus trek from their home in Bayville, N.J. countless times .  and she is thinking about buying season passes this year.

“It’s such a fun, family-friendly place to be,” Swerdloff said. “I’m very excited for the new season.”

And for good reason.

When the Bucks County attraction opens later this month, a month dedicated to autism awareness, it will do so as the world’s first autism-certified amusement park.

With students already gearing up for summer break, and adults readying for warmer temperatures, many local attractions are preparing to accommodate an influx of visitors, including those with autism.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 68 children have autism, a range of neurodevelopment conditions that can make social interaction and communication difficult. While awareness and support for the disorders have increased in recent years, places such as Sesame Place, Chuck E. Cheese, and Six Flags Great Adventure are striving to place an even greater focus on accessibility for autistic children and young adults.

At Sesame Place, season passes start at $118 per person, and Swerdloff, Merwin’s full-time caregiver, knows she probably shouldn’t be shelling out that kind of money. But every cent, she said, is worth it to see the joy on her son’s face during those day trips.

“His mind is so much Sesame. Every day it’s ‘Go to Sesame Place,'” Swerdloff said. “I have to show him the calendar and remind him that Sesame Place doesn’t open until April 28.”

The new certification recognizes many aspects of Sesame Place that have long drawn families affected by autism.

“This has been in the works for quite some time,” said Cathy Valeriano, the president of Sesame Place.

The park has always made it a point to be friendly to all visitors. Within the past year, however, its executives have worked with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) to gain this certification.

New at this park this season: About 80 percent of its staffers, including the “front-line” employees who have the most involvement with children, will be trained in interacting with those with special needs, Valeriano said. Visitors will have access to guides showing which rides are most accessible based on their needs. Quiet rooms, low-sensory areas, and noise-canceling headphones will also be available if someone is experiencing sensory overload.

And once again, Julia, a popular Sesame Street character who has autism, will be part of the gang of characters that roams the park.

While Sesame Place’s new distinction may be the first of its kind, its focus on accessibility is not.

Since last year, a Chuck E. Cheese in Cherry Hill, N.J. has held “Sensory Sensitive Sundays” once a month. The animatronic shows are turned off and bringing in outside food is permitted for the day, among other accommodations.

“It really is like Chuck E. Cheese, but quieter. I noticed it’s a big stress reliever for parents,” said General Manager Julia Kleber.

Fifty miles away, more than 1,800 tickets have been sold for Six Flag Great Adventure’s first-ever “Autism Day” next month in Jackson, N.J. The theme park, known for its action-packed coasters that shoot thrill-seekers high in the air, will open on May 3 with special accommodations for children with autism and their relatives.

Visitors will notice a transformation at the park’s entrance. Blaring announcements and music will be turned off, and lights dimmed.

Folks who get anxious standing in long lines can take a stroll while a staff member holds their spot. Deescalation tents equipped with therapists will be set up throughout the park. And rides will be rated from 1-5 based on thrill level, noise and movement.

“My son loves the excitement of being on the rides, but he doesn’t like large crowds or waiting on lines,” said Hilma de Souza, of Queens, who bought a ticket for her 7-year-old son, Ariel. The family usually leaves amusement parks shortly after arriving.

But she doesn’t expect Ariel— who has hypertension and autism— to experience problems at Six Flags because he will be surrounded by peers who are also on the spectrum.

“It’s more than just going to Six Flags,” de Souza said. “It’s a way to be together with our community and our support system.”

Six Flags created the event with Gersh Academy, a special education school in New York that brought the idea to park officials last year. More than 100 staffers will be on hand to guide people through the maze of attractions, Gersh said. For many, it will be their first Six Flags experience.

“It’s an overwhelming environment on a slow day, no less a busy day,” said founder Kevin Gersh, who said he was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and can relate to the feeling of being filled with energy.

But the day isn’t just about rides and adrenaline. Gersh Academy developed a curriculum for adults to learn more about ways to approach children with autism and how to help them build social skills. Guest speakers who have studied and written books about developmental disorders will give talks.

Back in Bucks County, Sesame Place is looking forward to the upcoming season, even more so because of their autism-friendly designation.

“Clearly it’s become international and national news,” Valeriano said. “We’ve been getting an outpouring of support.”

In Rochester, N.Y.,  Andrea Francis booked a surprise four-day, end-of-the-summer trip to Sesame Place in August upon hearing of the certification. Her 5-year-old twins, Keegan and Aiden, have mild autism. They visited Sesame Place once before, when they were 3, and had “a flawless trip.”

The park was quiet. The boys never seemed overstimulated. And there were no tears – a major victory for the boys, Francis said.

“I feel like this is probably our last trip before trying a larger place like a Disney World,” Francis said. “Knowing there’s a ton of people [at Sesame Place] who understand what we’re going through every day, how could we not book it?”