Culture

A glimpse inside Autism Day at Six Flags

For one summer day, children with autism and their families have Six Flags Great Adventure all to themselves.
Culture

A glimpse inside Autism Day at Six Flags

For one summer day, children with autism and their families have Six Flags Great Adventure all to themselves.

Most public spaces aren’t designed with people with autism in mind. Unfortunately, there are few places that this is more evident than amusement parks, cinemas, and theaters — places intended for entertainment and quality time with family.

Picture the entrance to Disney World, or Universal Studios: Bright, colorful, blinking lights surround the entrance sign. Dramatic orchestral music radiates from speakers in every possible direction: building walls, the sky, the ground. Thousands of people swat at one another with sweaty arms for a place in line. It’s overwhelming for most people.

Now imagine also dealing with sensory sensitivity — one of the most common symptoms of autism. Noise is louder. Lights are brighter. Touch is more potent. At its worst, it can be like being trapped inside the THX opening. Sensory sensitivity can make a somewhat hectic environment into something physically painful and emotionally overpowering. Children with autism often have trouble putting this feeling into words, meaning that they may shout or cry.

But public spaces don’t have to be this way — at least, not all the time. Over the past several years, private schools for children with autism and organizations like Autism Speaks have been organizing inclusive events at theaters and amusement parks that children with autism can enjoy with their families. One of the most notable examples is Autism Day at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, organized by The Gersh Academy. It’s not just a New Jersey event: families travel from all across the country to have the experience.

For the most part, Autism Day is precisely like any other day at Six Flags. There are only two crucial differences: at three different areas — beside the water in the “Fantasy Forest,” the carousel, and the cafe — there are decompression tents, or “quiet areas.” If a child gets upset or just needs a break, these areas are shaded respites from the rest of the park, complete with iPads and small, sensory friendly pools.

But perhaps more importantly, the event includes only children with autism, their families, and teachers trained to help children with autism. Yes, for “Autism Day,” this point seems rather obvious. But the distinction is important. It’s what makes the event more than a regular day at Six Flag with amenities for children with autism.

The biggest obstacle to people with autism and their families face in public spaces often isn’t a lack of amenities: it’s cruelty from other people and families. As the older sister of a brother who has autism, it’s an experience I understand intimately.

When ignorant strangers see a child with autism scream or cry, some will glare at the family, even the child. Occasionally, a person will approach the parents, berate them, ask why they don’t have better control over their child. But instances like this make up a small fraction of a time that a family spends in public. The most frequent and more painful reactions come during normal moments, when the child isn't upset and the family is generally happy. Some people will whisper and stare at families for no apparent reason — as if they don’t believe that the family has the right to exist in public space. Thankfully, very few people behave this way. But even one person is too many.

In an ideal world, “Autism Days” would not have to exist. Quiet, relaxing areas would be a common amenity in public and private space. People with and without autism would coexist without hesitation or judgement. But for now, Autism Days are living proof that there are vast networks of people who love and care about children with autism. For parents with carefree, polaroid-tinted memories of the amusements parks from their childhood, it’s a chance to share those memories with their own children. And for children with autism, it’s just a bright, happy day of summer.

Caroline Haskins

Hear interviews with children, parents, and the founder of The Gersh Academy on The Outline World Dispatch. Listen later on your favorite app or device below.

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Families walk together down Main Street, a central hub to Six Flags that’s located close to the entrance of the park.

Families walk together down Main Street, a central hub to Six Flags that’s located close to the entrance of the park.

In a waterside Decompression Tent by the Six Flags Fantasy Forest, a man shares a moment with a young boy. The multicolored puzzle tattoo pattern on his forearm represents autism awareness.

In a waterside Decompression Tent by the Six Flags Fantasy Forest, a man shares a moment with a young boy. The multicolored puzzle tattoo pattern on his forearm represents autism awareness.

The swirling ice cream towers mark the entrance to the Yum Yum Cafe, which is one of the 14 food options at Six Flags Great Adventure. Decompression Tents are located adjacent to the restaurant.

The swirling ice cream towers mark the entrance to the Yum Yum Cafe, which is one of the 14 food options at Six Flags Great Adventure. Decompression Tents are located adjacent to the restaurant.

A group of children and accompanying adults walk past the Decompression Tents, located in the Six Flags Fantasy Forest.

A group of children and accompanying adults walk past the Decompression Tents, located in the Six Flags Fantasy Forest.

Young children donning brightly colored dinosaur shirts share a relaxing moment on the the Six Flags Columbia Carousel, accompanied by an adult.

Young children donning brightly colored dinosaur shirts share a relaxing moment on the the Six Flags Columbia Carousel, accompanied by an adult.

A group of young, teenage boys, who came to Autism Day together, walk through the Yum Yum Cafe.

A group of young, teenage boys, who came to Autism Day together, walk through the Yum Yum Cafe.

Families whirl around together on the Enchanted Teacups ride, located in the Fantasy Forest area of the park.

Families whirl around together on the Enchanted Teacups ride, located in the Fantasy Forest area of the park.

A family wearing matching #TeamCJ shirts share a moment on a park bench. Some families conduct fundraising for autism research and treatment, using team names dedicated to the name of a loved one who has autism.

A family wearing matching #TeamCJ shirts share a moment on a park bench. Some families conduct fundraising for autism research and treatment, using team names dedicated to the name of a loved one who has autism.

A mother and group of children relax in the shade of a tree and have a snack in one of the less crowded areas of the park.

A mother and group of children relax in the shade of a tree and have a snack in one of the less crowded areas of the park.

A boy and a young man pose for a photo together with Looney Tunes characters Sylvester the cat and Tweety Bird.

A boy and a young man pose for a photo together with Looney Tunes characters Sylvester the cat and Tweety Bird.

A young boy stands beside the Main Street Fountain, located near the entrance of the park, wearing a kippah bearing the multicolored jigsaw pattern that represents autism awareness.

A young boy stands beside the Main Street Fountain, located near the entrance of the park, wearing a kippah bearing the multicolored jigsaw pattern that represents autism awareness.

A young boy shields his eyes from the sun and gazes toward The Giant Wheel, the park’s 147-foot tall ferris wheel.

A young boy shields his eyes from the sun and gazes toward The Giant Wheel, the park’s 147-foot tall ferris wheel.

A man and a young boy hold hands outside of a restroom adjacent to the Bizarro roller coaster.

A man and a young boy hold hands outside of a restroom adjacent to the Bizarro roller coaster.

The entrance to Six Flags Great Adventure, which is located in Jackson, New Jersey — a central region of the state.

The entrance to Six Flags Great Adventure, which is located in Jackson, New Jersey — a central region of the state.

A woman and a young boy smile in a photo together. The woman wears a bandana with the multicolored jigsaw pattern that represents autism awareness.

A woman and a young boy smile in a photo together. The woman wears a bandana with the multicolored jigsaw pattern that represents autism awareness.

A family wearing matching t-shirts that read “#TeamCJ” pose for a photo together.

A family wearing matching t-shirts that read “#TeamCJ” pose for a photo together.

A woman and a young boy smile in a photo together. The woman wears a bandana with the multicolored jigsaw pattern that represents autism awareness.

A family wearing matching t-shirts that read “#TeamCJ” pose for a photo together.

The man and young boy who shared a moment in the Decompression Tent pose for a photo with a young woman in the Fantasy Forest area of the park.

The man and young boy who shared a moment in the Decompression Tent pose for a photo with a young woman in the Fantasy Forest area of the park.

An adult and a young man smile together near the Main Street Fountain of the park.

An adult and a young man smile together near the Main Street Fountain of the park.

The man and young boy who shared a moment in the Decompression Tent pose for a photo with a young woman in the Fantasy Forest area of the park.

An adult and a young man smile together near the Main Street Fountain of the park.