The swift motion of rides, the noise of a crowd, and the twinkling lights fill the Dollywood Family Amusement Park. These activities could overstimulate the senses of any person, especially people diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Judy Toth, a Dollywood safety manager at the Tennessee park, noticed that families with children on the autism spectrum had a challenging time finding quiet places to calm their children. When they could not find anywhere peaceful, many had to leave their trips earlier than planned. Toth decided to help these families make their trips thoughtfully memorable by designing a calming room. This calming room was created to serve as a retreat for families seeking a respite from the overstimulating surroundings.  

The calming room was revealed in the spring of 2016 after Toth completed her investigation on the limited options accessible to families that could serve as a calming environment. She contacted the Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization, who aided with the making of the calming room.

The construction took about a month and a half, then in May 2016, the first calming room unlocked its doors to parkgoers. Toth told PEOPLE, “We just felt this is something that we wanted to do to give back to these families.” Families who revealed that they have a child on the autism spectrum were informed about the calming room and were able to book a 30-minute time slot for when they required a break.

Toth told PEOPLE about the features of the room,

“It’s a nice, quiet environment. It has the dimmer switch for the lighting…It’s cool colors, blues and greens. There’s a 6-foot beanbag, there’s a TV, there’s a rocking chair. There’s some sensory items, there’s the fiber optic light.”

Everything in the room contributed to forming a calming environment.

Dollywood Autism Room https://app.asana.com/0/1135954362417873/1145603342256675/f Credit: The Dollywood Company

The calming room has been an astonishing success. There were around 450 families who visited the room and 336 of those families visited Dollywood Park because of this feature. Toth told PEOPLE,

“We’ve had some amazing stories and some wonderful crying sessions. When a family doesn’t know about the room, and then we find out their child [has autism] and we share that information, it’s pretty incredible to see their face…Because it’s not a break room, it’s not just for the child, but it’s for the parents because they need that to get away from people judging them.”

Families have been appreciative of this feature at the Dollywood Park because many want their children to have these experiences, but their fears of being judged or having no help stop many from visiting such places. The calming room provides families with the assurance that they have a safety net. If their child needs a break, they have the accommodations right at the park.

This feature is not the only new implementation Toth had planned for the park. She also established an advisory panel at the Dollywood Park that is run by families who frequently visit. Toth told PEOPLE, “It’s near and dear to my heart that I have this opportunity that I can help these families.” The panel has suggested many exceptional features such as host sensitivity and awareness training, along with adult changing tables and proper signs to publicize information to parkgoers. This feature has improved the experiences of many families. Other theme parks could take note of these improvements to help individuals with special needs. Judy Toth has shown that by adding just one feature, it can create a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone.

Dollywood Autism Room https://app.asana.com/0/1135954362417873/1145603342256675/f Credit: The Dollywood Company
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