For individuals with Autism, theme parks can be the definition of overstimulation. Loud noises, large crowds, and screaming strangers can grate on anyone’s patience, but for autistic individuals it can be much worse. Unfortunately, most theme parks aren’t equipped to accommodate guests that feel overwhelmed by roller-coaster rattling and cotton candy crowds. Southern park Dollywood, as of recently, is an exception to this oversight.
Owned by country singer and actress Dolly Parton, Dollywood is a theme park located in Pigeonwood, Tennessee: the biggest ticketed tourist attraction in the state. Hosting roughly three million guests per season (Presidents Day to Christmas), Dollywood is a Smokey Mountains staple. It showcases the region’s traditional crafts and music, frequently hosting concerts by Dolly and other musicians.
Unlike other theme parks, Dollywood now features what they call a “calming room” where families can take their overstimulated loved one for some quiet time. The relaxing environment helps families take a break from the excessive sights and sounds so that everyone may better enjoy their day. Dollywood’s calming room is the first of its kind at any theme park in the world, according to ABC news.
Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty dealing with sensory information, especially in situations where there is a lot of stimulation — sights, sounds, smells, you name it — criteria that truly defines theme parks. The way autistic individuals process all of this may affect their feelings, emotions and behavior, especially if they can’t remove themselves from the situation. Sensory overload may induce stress, anxiety, aggression, or even physical pain.
Under other circumstances, families might decide that taking an autistic family member to a theme park would be too much of a risk. If taking that risk, they might try to seek out refuge in a restroom or under a tree, neither which are guaranteed to be quiet. Calming rooms, as an alternative, let those guests enjoy their time at the park at their own pace. Parents can rest assured knowing that if they do get overwhelmed, there’s a special place to cool off.
Will other theme parks follow Dollywood’s lead on this? Though it may be too soon to say, Parents.com claims that Legoland may implement this feature too. Whatever the case, the benefits are clear. Families of autistic individuals will be much more willing to patron theme parks with the whole family if they can escape the hustle and bustle when they need to, then get back out there and have a ball.