Three years ago, Aasta Deth of Natrona Heights took her family to Kennywood Park. Her son Sam was 3 years old, and had recently been diagnosed with autism. Sam is particularly sensitive to noise stimulation, which sometimes leads to meltdowns.
The trip to Kennywood wasn't very positive, Deth said. The family was still learning how to adjust their social outings to accomodate Sam's recent diagnosis. Deth said Sam was very overwhelmed by the noise, lights and crowds at the amusement park. Standing in line was also a challenge because Sam has trouble staying still.
"By the time we get to the ride, he's melted down so much from just standing in line that then the ride is not good for us," Deth said.
They haven't been back since, but that could soon change.
Last week, Kennywood was designated a Certified Autism Center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. That means Kennywood staff has been trained to properly interact with kids and adults on the autism spectrum.
The park will also put together a sensory guide booklet for visitors with autism and their families, which will lay out the sights, sounds and other sensory experiences for each ride and attraction in Kennywood.
"It will let them know where there's extra noises, sounds, lights or anything else, so they can avoid it or be prepared to go into that area," said Marie Ruby, Kennywood's director of ride operations.
Meredith Tekin is president of the credentialing board, and said the booklet is important because it allows parents to make informed decisions about where they should spend time in the park.
"Parents know their kids best, they just need the tools to understand what to expect," Tekin said. "Then to know if they need help or if they have questions, that the staff is going to welcome them and not be afraid or nervous to engage with them."
Deth said the sensory guide could be a game changer for parents like herself.
"As a parent of an autistic child, it requires you planning five steps ahead, knowing where things are, knowing how to get from A to B without having to go through the noisy place," Deth said. "Something like that is going to be so helpful, and I'm definitely a lot more likely to take my kids."
Kennywood will also establish a quiet room within the park to give visitors on the spectrum a place to decompress if things get too overwhelming. Ruby said it will likely be near Dancing Waters, a garden area with few rides nearby.
The park has existing initiatives to improve the experience for visitors with autism. Last year, Kennywood started to offer "sensory bags," which are available at some areas of the park. The bags include toys, crayons, a coloring book and ear plugs.
Visitors with disabilities can also get a "rider safety pass," which allows them to avoid the traditional line for rides. There's a virtual queue for the pass, so the guest and their family can sit on a bench or wait elsewhere instead of in the actual line. Ruby said in special cases, the wait time is waived.
Lora Rigatti of the North Side said getting a "rider safety pass" made a huge difference in past Kennywood visits with her family. Her son Miles is 6 years old and on the autism spectrum. Like Deth, Rigatti said early trips to Kennywood were dampened by meltdowns in line for rides.
Rigatti said she's encouraged by the idea of trained staff and a quiet space. She said Miles doesn't have any physical markers of a disability, so they've experienced people treating them with disdain in cases of public breakdowns.
"Our son is not really sensitive to sounds in general, but when he's very triggered, it's really nice to have a place to go that's non-stimulating and away from everybody else," Rigatti said.
Tekin said there's an increasing interest in the hospitality and amusement industries to accomodate guests with disabilities more broadly. The credentialing board has a travel guide for families seeking autism-friendly resorts and parks that have received accredidation.
"Families who have kids on the spectrum or even adults have a lack of options where they feel safe and welcomed," Tekin said. "Certification isn't about completely changing what Kennywood does best, but it's about making sure their staff understands those guests."