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Your ATN@Work: Creating an Autism-Friendly Community in Nashville

The Autism Speaks ATN at Vanderbilt is forging partnerships with community arts and education organizations including the Nashville Zoo

By pediatric behavior analyst Lauren Weaver, coordinator of organizational outreach at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD). Vanderbilt TRIAD is one of 14 centers in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN).


Imagine a city where centers for the arts, education and entertainment are staffed by people who understand the special needs of individuals with autism and tailor their services and events to these needs.

Welcome to Nashville, Tennessee!

The core of this community initiative is our ATN center’s Families First Program. We began by training parents and other caregivers in behavioral strategies they can use to support their children with autism. Already we’ve reached more than 2,500 caregivers with this training.

Families told us how they felt supported by the education and guidance they received through the Families First trainings. However, many also told us that they still felt anxious about attempting family outings to arts, education and entertainment venues and events.

So in 2013, we created our Organizational Engagement Program. Its mission is to help community organizations embrace and include individuals with autism in their activities. In the process, we’ve built extraordinary partnerships throughout Nashville and its surrounding communities.

In the program’s first year, TRIAD trained more than a hundred staff members at community organizations. These organizations, in turn, hosted 11 autism-friendly events attended by more than 900 people.

Our current TRIAD Community Partners include the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville Children’s Theatre, Nashville Opera, Nashville Public Library, Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, Tennessee Performing Arts Center and the YMCA of Middle Tennessee.

Today, I’d like to highlight our very first community partner – the Nashville Zoo.

Nashville Zoo – creating a national model
Who wouldn’t love giraffes, kangaroos and the opportunity to create autism-friendly programming that all kids can enjoy?

As our city’s most-visited tourist attraction, Nashville Zoo was a perfect partner to spearhead our outreach program. Its staff was eager to provide a better experience to individuals and families affected by autism. We began by training the zoo’s animal keepers, educators and guest-services staff.

We provided an overview of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This included explaining how an individual affected by the disorder may behave in a public place such as the zoo. Next, we trained the staff in ways to provide effective and accessible support. We accompanied them out into the zoo grounds to help them apply these strategies. For example, they found potential challenges at the Critter Encounters exhibit. These included unclear boundaries and expectations for visitors petting animals. They addressed the issue by adding autism-friendly visual supports. For example, one visual support showed how to pet an animal.

Together with the zoo staff, we developed social stories, modified maps and a visual schedule to help families prepare their children for a zoo visit. We knew that the social stories would be particularly important for potentially challenging situations such as waiting in line or petting an animal.

We posted the stories we developed, in English and Spanish, on both the zoo’s website and in the resource directory on TRIAD’s website. Our colleagues at Tennessee Disability Pathfinder provided the translation.

We reached out to other zoos to see what they were doing to support families of children with ASD. We learned, for example, that the Philadelphia Zoo has wonderful resources for its KidZooU exhibit.

Our conversations with other zoos helped inspire a special session at the midyear 2014 meeting of Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). It was titled “Practical Approaches to Inclusion of Audiences on the Autism Spectrum.” Six member organizations, including Nashville Zoo, continued the conversation with a presentation at the AZA Annual Meeting in September, entitled “Becoming Community Leaders in Accessibility and Inclusion.”

Autism Awareness Day at the Nashville Zoo
TRIAD and the Nashville Zoo have continued to co-host events raising awareness and understanding about autism. These included the zoo’s first Autism Awareness Day this past April! The event featured autism-friendly activities including games and interactions with live animals.

This past summer, Nashville Zoo also hosted Zooper Heroes, its first summer camp for children with special needs. The camp provided playful opportunities to develop social skills. (See photo at top of page.)

The Nashville Zoo continues to expand their ability to meet the needs of the autism community. In doing so, it has become a national leader in increasing accessibility for our families while modeling effective practices to other organizations.

We are so proud of this example of how we can partner with community organizations to bring joy and greater quality of life to individuals and families affected by autism. In closing, we’d like to extend a special thank you to Autism Speaks’ large community of volunteers and fund raisers for supporting this work.

Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
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The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.