Zoos Working To Become More Autism-Friendly

by Shaun Heasley, Disability Scoop | December 9, 2021

Guests walk past a zebra at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, Va. (Kaitlin McKeown/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

A new effort is underway to help zoos across the nation become more welcoming to individuals with autism.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is working with Vanderbilt University’s Kennedy Center Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, known as TRIAD, and Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center to develop an evidence-based framework of inclusive practices for zoos and aquariums.

The four-year Modeling Zoos and Aquariums as Inclusive Communities of Science, or MoZAICS, project is funded by the National Science Foundation and will touch on every aspect of the zoo experience, from exhibits and visiting in general to volunteering and employment.

Researchers plan to conduct a needs assessment and literature review and then work with staff on the ground at zoos and aquariums to determine how best to implement more inclusive practices.

“The MoZAICS project represents one of the first of its kind to support autistic audiences within the zoo and aquarium context,” said Lauren Weaver, director of community engagement at Vanderbilt’s TRIAD who’s helping to spearhead the endeavor. “We are excited to look at the experience of autistic patrons at zoos and aquariums across the full breadth of engagement opportunities and to build strong, research-informed guidelines to drive true inclusion for neurodivergent individuals.”

Those behind the project said they also plan to evaluate how their approach could help zoos and aquariums become more inclusive of other groups that are historically underserved by such institutions.

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