Zoo Offers ‘A Special Night For Special Needs Families’

SALISBURY – The Salisbury Zoo will host an after-hours event next week for children with special needs.

On Tuesday, May 7, the Salisbury Zoo will host “A Special Night for Special Needs Families” from 5-7 p.m.

Education Curator Leonora Dillon said families and children with special needs can explore the zoo and test new sensory-inclusive materials.

“Children with special needs have things that can bother them or set them off,” she said. “So we wanted to find ways to assist them and make it easier for them to utilize the zoo.”

Dillion said the education department decided to explore programming opportunities for children with special needs after working alongside local students.

“Our education department works with a variety of students with special needs in the Wicomico County school district,” she said. “After working with them for a couple of semesters and having them in intern positions, we started looking into groups and organizations that host special events.”

A few years ago, the zoo teamed up with the Bay Area Center for Independent Living (BACIL) to offer a few events for those with special needs. But Dillion said she recently turned to associate professor Rhyannon Bemis and her psychology students at Salisbury University to develop permanent programs and materials.

“She came up with the idea of her students doing a research project where they look at different disorders and things that could trigger meltdowns and give accommodations to those with special needs,” she said. “So each group of students came up with prototypes of sensory-inclusive materials to use at the zoo.”

Psychology students from Salisbury University will be present at the after-hours event on May 7 to share new materials created for children with special needs.

Dillion said the after-hours event will feature new maps and signage, which will identify zoo exhibits that could affect children with light, sound and smell sensitivities, packages with earplugs and more.

“It gives families a way to bypass those zones or to be prepared for them,” she said.

Dillion said families will be asked to complete a survey on their experience. She explained the responses will be used to develop permanent programs and sensory materials at the zoo.

“The game plan is to eventually offer sensory backpacks that can be checked out by families visiting the zoo during its normal hours of operation,” she said. “It could include fidget toys, sensory zone maps and tools for nonverbal children to communicate their thoughts and feelings.”

Until then, Dillion said the zoo will continue to partner with Salisbury University students next semester to offer more after-hours events for families and children with special needs.

“The long-term goal is to have the zoo be more inclusive,” she said, “to have more opportunities where a child can come in an be assisted on a daily basis.”

“A Special Night for Special Needs Families” will take place on Tuesday, May 7, from 5-7 p.m. Space is limited, and families must register online to attend.

For more information, or to register, visit salisburyzoo.org/events.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.