April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day! This is an opportunity to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism, foster worldwide support, and inspire a kinder, more inclusive world. People with autism can definitely still have a great visit to Fossil Rim Wildlife Center.
“Individuals with autism often present a variety of unique challenges and learning styles,” said Fossil Rim Tour Guide Sara Paulsen. “Fossil Rim has an array of opportunities that can be both enriching and educational. Whether the need is sensory, social, and/or communication, Fossil Rim is supportive of those with autism, as well as all special needs.
“The Children’s Animal Center (CAC) is a source of individual encounters with animals. Our CAC staff is experienced in working with the public through informal and more structured educational presentations. Picnic facilities are nearby, and the Overlook Café offers gluten-free items on the menu.
“Some individuals may choose to stay in their own vehicle while exploring our 7.2 miles of Gosdin Scenic Drive that is home to more than 1,100 animals. Many of the species at Fossil Rim have an endangered status. ‘Step-On’ tours are another option that involve an experienced guide joining a small group within their own vehicle to give a guided tour. These tours require prior notification and arrangements.
“For a fully immersive experience, a guided tour on one of Fossil Rim’s tour vehicles is an option. Our guides are sensitive to the unique needs of individuals and can modify accordingly. Please contact Fossil Rim before making a reservation if special considerations and adaptations are a concern.
“Conservation, education, and research are the cornerstones of Fossil Rim. Respect and dignity for the animals, each other, and those with special needs contribute to the overall mission of this nonprofit organization to provide education and conserve what is precious.”
Beyond being a tour guide, Sara is a longtime Fossil Rim volunteer. Many Fossil Rim fans may know her best for her December contributions as “The Elf.”
“Before joining Fossil Rim as a tour guide in my retirement, I taught children with special needs, including autism, for 35 years,” Paulsen said. “I’m also a certified Texas Master Naturalist, and the combination of my teaching background and love of nature has prepared me especially well for the work that I’ve done at Fossil Rim. Since I began volunteering at Fossil Rim, I have had many opportunities to serve as a guide and support system for various special-needs classes and programs.
“This includes hosting individuals with autism and their families on special tours. I’ve also participated in local special events, such as Dream Day, Somervell County Day, and a Wish with Wings. I truly believe that a condition or diagnosis doesn’t define who a person is – people are people first.
“Those with autism may perceive the world around them differently and behave differently as a result, but it’s up to us to provide compassion, support, and inclusion in everything we do. I’m proud to play a part in helping Fossil Rim achieve its mission, because they really do live what they believe.”
According to autismspeaks.org, autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated one in 54 children in the United States today.
We know that there is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think, and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.
Several factors may influence the development of autism, and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures, or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and attention issues.
Indicators of autism usually appear by age 2-3. Some associated development delays can appear even earlier, and often, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Research shows that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism.
-Sara Paulsen, Tour Guide & Volunteer