Connecting all individuals in Summit County to meaningful nature experiences is a central theme of our mission. Summit Metro Parks (SMP) strives to create a safe, accepting and inclusive environment through events and programs designed with special populations in mind. In 2017, SMP partnered with the Autism Society of Greater Akron (ASGA) to become the first Autism Friendly community location in Summit County.
Earning this designation for the visitors’ center at F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm required two different sessions of staff training: Autism 101 and Autism 102, both of which focused on working through real-life scenarios with our staff. The park district has also created educational pieces to inform the public of the center’s welcoming and inclusive environment, and how they can best support the initiative. As a result of these efforts, the Nature Realm was officially recognized in May 2018 as a welcoming facility for individuals and families living with autism.
Throughout the process, we worked closely with ASGA to execute our autism-friendly initiative and make our designation as impactful as possible. We developed signage, designated a web page on summitmetroparks.org showcasing our offerings and dedicated a staff member as our “Autism Ambassador.” In coordination with ASGA, we created a pre-visit booklet for individuals with autism that is designed to help reduce anxiety and prepare them for a visit to our visitors center. We also offer modifications to naturalist programs when possible to support this special population.
Our Autism Friendly designation has allowed us to develop many meaningful partnerships. To become more integrated in the local autism community, SMP participates annually in ASGA’s signature event “Autism 5k and Fun Run” and delivered a presentation at the nonprofit’s annual Autism Summit for combined exposure to about 1,700 people. Additionally, Summit Metro Parks contributed the graphic design work for the Autism Friendly logo mark.
In 2019, our program grew by leaps and bounds as planning began for our inaugural Autism Friendly Touch-A-Truck event. In order to create a successful program from the ground up, forty staff members and volunteers were trained on working with families living with autism. Facilitated by the ASGA, training included information on working with visitors that may have fixated interests, echolalia (verbal repetition), different social interactions and various means of communication.
Traditionally, the Touch-A-Truck program operates from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; however, this year the program was adjusted to include an autism-friendly hour free of sirens, lights and other loud or chaotic scenarios. The autism-friendly hour began at 9 a.m. and went so well that the remainder of the day was designated “quiet” – a decision that was a hit with parents, volunteers and SMP staff! With targeted promotion through ASGA and the Summit Educational Service Center, we welcomed 75 families to the adapted hour of the event. SMP staff also developed three new stations this year: a story trail, where visitors could visually read a book about insects that behave like trucks, where large motor movements and “heavy work” of carrying large sized inflated balls were part of the experience; a sand pit with large toy trucks; and a make-a-craft station hosted by the Autism Society of Greater Akron.
Thanks to the extensive staff training we received, we can bring what we’ve learned to 100 percent of our facilities, programs and events, delivering social equity across all park experiences. We are proud to say that our staff can now provide a comfortable, inclusive and meaningful environment for children and adults with autism.
Meghan Doran is the assistant education and recreation manager for Summit Metro Parks.