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Hosting Exceptional Children on Your Farm
Agritourism is a great way for farms to connect with consumers and tell our story. I recently visited two agritourism farms with my older son, who is 5 and has autism. As a mom of an exceptional child, I have gained a new perspective on making places accesible for people with special needs, and agritourism farms are no differnent.
Here are five suggestions I have for agritourism farms to meet the needs of their exceptional customers.
- Have handicap bathrooms.
Whether it’s a building with restrooms or a portable toilet, have handicapped bathrooms. Have more than one. Have them in multiple places.
We are still potty training, so two of us have to fit in the stall. We have had to make a wardrobe change and, trust me, trying to help my son with that in a regular portable toilet is an experience.
On a recent school trip, my son’s class took a hay ride to the a picnic area. There had to be at least 40 tables. Only two regular-size portable toilets were within close walking distance. At least 10 school groups were there that day and most were eating lunch at the same time. When you have an exceptional child, they often have to use the bathroom RIGHT NOW. So please, have restrooms in multiple locations throughout your agritourism operation. Walking is not a challenge for my son, but it could be for another exceptional child.
2. Rethink ID.
One farm we visited used plastic arm bands to show who had paid. My son refuses to wear one. He’s not being defiant; for him, it is a sensory issue. Many people with autism are sensitive to things most people wouldn’t think twice about such as certain fabrics. Consider making other options available such as stickers (which my son wouldn’t wear until recently), tickets, or hand stamps.
3. Give instructions in multiple ways.
At one attraction the attendant kept saying “Don’t run!” My son processes information differently, so all he heard was “Run!” Her instructions would have been more effective for him if she had said what she wanted the kids to do, “Walk!”
Many children with autism struggle to understand and follow verbal instructions. When my son was younger and had more challenges with language, we used visual supports such as photos and drawings to communicate with him and for him to communicate with us. Some of his classmates use this tool. Having visual instructions, both written words and photos, would be a valuable tool. Read more about visual supports here.
Transitions can also be challenging for kids with autism, especially when they aren’t following their regular routine. My son transitions better when he has warning that what he is currently doing is about to end, especially when it’s something he has fun doing. One farm had time limits on the corn pit, bouncy mat, and other attractions. Giving a five-minute or one-minute warning would have made his transition to ending the activity easier. On the pony ride, the attendant told me how many loops we would make so I could count them down with my son. When he finished the ride, it was’t a surprise because he knew the last loop was coming.
4. Turn down the volume.
Some people with autism are sensitive to noise, smells, or lights. On the hayride, one of my son’s classmates covered his ears and got agitated. The noise upset him. Now, you can’t make a tractor any quieter, but the driver could have refrained from beeping the horn at passing hayrides. Loud music or someone coming over an intercom can cause a previously calm child to react in a non-typical way.
5. Consider a sensory-friendly day.
From the mall Santa to movies, bowling, gyms, and a truck show, we have seen a number of places offer sensory-friendly events for exceptional people. This summer I took the boys to a truck show. The first hour was sensory-friendly, so trucks didn’t start or blow their horns, and there was no loud music.
Several shopping malls near us offer a sensory-friendly Santa time, usually before or after the mall’s regular hours. They will turn the lights and music down, and offer alternative activities such as coloring. I recently found out that PNC Arena, which hosts concerts, plays, and several sports teams, recently started a sensory-inclusive initiative, offering resources to people with sensory challenges free of charge. Hosting these special events or making resources available creates a place we can take our exceptional kids where they can be themselves and don’t have to be exposed to nasty looks or ugly comments when they “misbehave.”
These are based on my experience as a mom of a child with autism. What suggestions would you offer an agritourism farm to make it more friendly to exceptional people?