Here’s another way waterparks can accommodate people living with autism and other disabilities: Give them the VIP treatment.
On select evenings, Sahara Sam’s Oasis in West Berlin, N.J., becomes a haven where individuals with disabilities, and their guardians, can cut loose.
These exclusive events, called Special Evenings at Sam’s or SEAS, provide a more relaxing atmosphere than you’d typically find during general admission hours. Ticket sales are limited, so crowds aren’t a concern. The lights are dimmed, the volume is turned down and the arcade goes dark. This helps avoid overstimulation — a common concern among those on the autism spectrum. Those with special diets can bring their own snacks.
SEAS is held four times a year, with 400 to 500 people invited to get soaked in a judgment-free zone. It’s also a networking opportunity where parents and caretakers can gather information from advocacy organizations, state agencies, speech therapists and other local resources.
Here, organizers share tips on how to throw a splashy soiree for the differently abled.
Relax the rules (slightly)
This one may seem to fly in the face of everything your lifeguards were taught, but Sahara Sam’s CEO, Ilya Girlya, recommends that staff ease up on enforcement. “We do relax the rules, but not to the point of compromising safety,” he says. For example, during SEAS, children are permitted to lounge at the mouth of the river and enjoy the fountains — a big no-no during general admission hours. But it’s a slower night, so guests can easily navigate around them.
Guards also are advised to exercise more patience. Annie Peters, executive director of the waterpark’s nonprofit arm, the Sambulance Safety Squad, which provides education and programming for special-needs communities throughout the Garden State, recalls an example: One time, a child kept running up the mat that was placed over an artificial wave machine. The attraction was off and the child was not in immediate danger. So rather than yell at the youngster or pull him off, a lifeguard simply waited by the machine and monitored him until the child was ready to move on. “It’s really just taking the time to ensure they’re safe and joining them at their level,” Peters advises.
Don’t overwhelm a child
A lot of children with autism have heightened sensory concerns. That’s why lifeguards are instructed to use whistles sparingly. And if there is a situation that calls for intervention, don’t send multiple guards when one can do the job. Guards also should refrain from physical contact. Obviously, if a child is in danger, guards should do what they must. Otherwise, Girlya recommends that they first notify a caretaker who can (literally) handle the child.
Work with an expert
Sahara Sam’s Oasis is fortunate to have a professional special-needs educator in Peters, who works closely with staff members on how to respond appropriately in emergency situations. Waterparks that do not have that kind of expertise on hand can work with any number of advocacy organizations who will gladly offer advice.
Forget the bottom line
Sahara Sam’s Oasis reduces ticket sales for SEAS by 50 percent. It’s not about generating revenue, Girlya says. He knows how difficult it can be for families to find suitable entertainment for those with physical or mental impairments: His sister has a condition limiting her motor skills. “We do this because it’s the right thing to do,” he adds.