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Utah’s Hogle Zoo to host 1st Neurodiversity Celebration Day on Dec. 27

Utah's Hogle Zoo, Neurodiversity Celebration Day, courtesy photo
Courtesy of Utah’s Hogle Zoo
As part of its first Neurodiversity Celebration Day on Dec. 27, Utah’s Hogle Zoo will present a toned-down version of its popular ZooLights attraction. The volume of the Christmas music volume will be lower, and the blinking and flashing lights will be either reduced or stopped altogether.

Elmo, Big Bird and the other residents of Sesame Street recently paid a visit to Vivint Smart Home Arena, to the delight of many Salt Lake City-area families. While most who attended enjoyed the show, Allison Sherman’s two daughters had a difficult time.

For 4-year-old Elise, “it was super loud, even though to the rest of us it wasn't,” Sherman said. “And the lights just kind of triggered her a little bit and made it really hard.”

Caroline, 8, also thought the show was loud and was put off by the crowds.

Both Caroline and Elise are neurodivergent, which Sherman called a “superpower.” It makes Caroline creative and very outgoing. But that superpower also sometimes presents challenges for their family.

“Things like the movies, the zoo [and] going shopping sometimes can just be overwhelming,” Allison said.

In addition to a heightened sensitivity to sensory inputs, Sherman explained that children like her daughters also lack certain internal self-soothing mechanisms when they encounter stressors.

“They will have a tantrum, they'll scream, they'll hit — whatever they want to do to try to escape what they're feeling because they don't know how to describe what they're going through.”

For Caroline, animals provide a powerful external source of soothing. And while the family budget doesn’t allow frequent zoo trips, when they do go, she can stand and watch the animals for hours which “just calms her entire body down,” Sherman said.

To more fully include families like the Shermans in the zoo experience, Utah’s Hogle Zoo is partnering with the Utah Parent Center to host its first Neurodiversity Celebration Day on Dec. 27.

Utah's Hogle Zoo, Neurodiversity Celebration Day, Caroline Sherman and friends
Courtesy of Allison Sherman
Caroline Sherman, 8, poses with a few of her friends. Her mother Allison Sherman said she sometimes has difficulty self-soothing as a neurodivergent child. “The one thing that we have found for Caroline is that animals are something that's very calming for her.”

“We know that these individuals love wildlife,” said Heather Barnum, Hogle’s spokesperson. “They love learning. They love telling you all that they know about animals.”

Barnum previously worked at the Utah Department of Health and Human services and is familiar with how neurodivergent individuals interact with experiences like the zoo. By creating an event for those with higher sensory sensitivities “they can also experience wildlife in their own unique way.”

During the day, Hogle Zoo will have special activities with the zookeepers, as well as carts with objects with different textures and functions called fidgets.

“You might be clicking something, you might be messing with something, you might be feeling different textures,” explained Esperanza Reyes, the associate director of the Utah Parent Center. Such objects can help some neurodivergent individuals “recenter, refocus and kind of regulate those emotions.”

There will also be a special quiet room set aside for guests who may feel overwhelmed, Barnum said. While there is always a quiet space available at the zoo for those who need it, the possibility of extra demand on Dec. 27 warranted reserving an additional area for that purpose.

The zoo will still present its popular ZooLights attraction that night, but it will be a somewhat toned-down affair.

Elements of the normal show “might be discouraging to individuals who have high sensory needs,” Barnum said. So during the special presentation – called “Silent Night” ZooLights – the volume of the Christmas music will be lower, and the blinking and flashing of the lights will be reduced or stopped altogether.

Families who do not have neurodivergent individuals will still be welcome and Barnum said they will have opportunities to “understand and celebrate the different ways of viewing the zoo.” And partner organizations will also provide “information about what you can do to be more sensitive to people in their own unique surroundings in your communities.”

Reyes said one of the biggest challenges neurodivergent individuals face is a lack of understanding about the diversity in the way people “will learn, will think, will behave, will process experiences.” She said they even experience “a little bit of a lack of compassion or understanding.”

Sherman said her daughter Caroline has felt that lack of understanding, as evidenced by a prayer she said one night.

“She just wanted God to help her be seen a little differently so that people would understand who she is,” her mother said.

“She wanted the world to understand that people like her are not bad, they're OK. That they're just a little bit different, and different is good.”

The Shermans will be at the zoo for Neurodiversity Celebration Day — a place where Caroline does find understanding. Her mother observed that Caroline feels like she understands the animals and they understand her.

With animals, “I’m safe,” she said.

Rob is a native of Salt Lake City and is happy to be back home and enjoying “one of the best backyards in the world” again.
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