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Advocate Health Care and Brookfield Zoo helping kids with autism

Advocate Health Care and Brookfield Zoo helping kids with autism

I am the proud parent of two beautiful young boys. Mikey, my oldest son, loves the outdoors. My youngest son, Nicky, has a strong personality. He likes to take ownership and be in charge. A few years ago Mikey was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As a parent, balancing both of them can be challenging and a blessing, especially when it comes to spending a day at the zoo.

A few months ago, one of the therapists at Advocate Children’s Hospital – Park Ridge approached me about an opportunity to have our family participate in a unique program called “Family Fun Saturdays.” The goal is to advance skill-building in an inclusive, interactive, and community-based environment, not often available to children with the disorder.

I was so excited when I heard about the opportunity. In the past, taking both my sons to the zoo has been very difficult. My two boys both have such different personalities and needs that when you go to a place like the zoo where you mostly plan on the spot, it can be frustrating for an autistic kid. I also knew that this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for my entire family.

Saturday, April 25th was our first session. The entire family went to the zoo – me, my husband Paul, Mikey and Nicky. Mikey was reluctant at first because it broke from the structure of what we would do every Saturday, but he was looking forward to being outside.

The day started with welcoming everyone in a center area and beginning with yoga. The kids used animals in references of stretching out by asking the children how animals grab for their food or how an animal walks.

Then the children were separated into two different groups to explore the outside by using Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).

PECS is a form of augmented and alternative communication created for individuals with a variety of communication challenges including autism spectrum disorder. PECS is a method to teach young children or any individual with a communication impairment a way to communicate within a social context.

The group matched the animals with their color. Following that activity, the children colored a little and then quickly moved on to the garden area. When they were in the garden, the children started planting by digging and placing seeds in the soil. They also raked leaves. After that they headed back to the original circle area where the entire group sang the “goodbye song.”

The entire day was jammed pack with lots of activities for the kids. The entire staff was instrumental in providing a strict schedule that was in a controlled setting for all the kids to be able to be engaged and learn.

Seeing Mikey smiling after that first Saturday was amazing. I truly saw his eyes light up with excitement after we left the zoo that day.

Since the first day, everyone looks forward to Saturday so we can all go to the zoo. Sunday will roll around and Mikey will already ask “is it Saturday yet?” He has really started to look forward to the new routine of going to the zoo every Saturday.

As a parent, watching my son experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity brings tears to my eyes. I’ve already been able to see him grow in the last few sessions he’s attended. It’s made him more focused and he’s more talkative. All week he won’t stop telling us about all the new things he learned about animals and what they do. We love it!

“Family Fun Saturdays” for our children’s age group will conclude on Saturday, June 6 with a special celebratory ceremony. As much as we look forward to recognizing our son’s accomplishments with everything he’s learned, it will be sad not to go to the zoo every Saturday. It’s really become a wonderful weekly tradition.

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About the Author

Daniella Alvarez
Daniella Alvarez

Daniella Alvarez resides in Chicago with her husband and two beautiful children, Mikey and Nicky. When she isn't carpooling her kids around various activities and appointments, she loves to shop, workout and spending time outdoors. The family also loves to travel.