Aug 8, 2023 - Business

Tampa Bay's Selby Botanical Gardens gets autism-friendly approval

a man sits by a pond in a garden

Visitor Ryan Vogler at the waterfall and koi pond on Selby Gardens' downtown Sarasota campus during a Tranquil Tuesday event. Photo courtesy of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

There are countless lists of places to visit and things to do in Tampa Bay. But there's one list Lisa Bunn lives by: Businesses that are designated "Autism Friendly" by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) at the University of South Florida.

Why it matters: For parents like Bunn, who is a member of CARD's Constituency Board, going to a place on the list means knowing its staff has the training and resources to accommodate people with autism like her 12-year-old daughter, Elena.

  • "You have to be a planner in a child's life with autism," Bunn told Axios. "If I don't have a chance to plan and research and know, I don't waste my time. It's not worth the aggravation and the stress."

Driving the news: Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is the latest Tampa Bay business to make CARD's list. For the last year, the gardens has been hosting Tranquil Tuesdays at its downtown Sarasota campus, providing complimentary admission an hour after closing for neurodiverse and sensory-sensitive people without the usual daytime crowds, noise, and other distractions.

  • The gardens also always offer customized sensory maps of the campus and access to noise-canceling earmuffs and wheelchairs.

Between the lines: Accommodations like Tranquil Tuesdays give neurodivergent people a chance to "practice," being in a low sensory environment, and then they decide if they want to return to the space on a day that's less busy, CARD assistant program director Christine Rover told Axios.

  • And being inclusive helps the economy as well as the community. "These people have spending power," Rover said. "They have money they want to be able to use to go to vacations and museums and be out in their communities."

By the numbers: Nationwide, 1 in 36 8-year-olds have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the CDC — meaning there could be around 83,000 people with autism who live in the Tampa Bay region.

The intrigue: CARD started in 1993 to serve children with autism and their families. The organization has evolved to assist mostly adults as those children have grown up and needed help finding jobs and homes.

  • The program is funded by the Florida Department of Education through an annual grant. There are six other centers at universities across the state.

Details: Being on the autism-friendly list gives Selby Gardens access to staff training on understanding the disability; consultations on accessibility, sensory considerations, and reasonable accommodations/modifications; custom visual supports; Distract Pak sensory relief kits; and customized support for employees with autism.

Plus: Businesses on the list are required to be in regular contact with CARD throughout the year, so those who do not follow through with program expectations are removed, Liz Burke, CARD consultant and project lead told Axios.

What's next: Jennifer Rominiecki, the gardens' president and CEO, told Axios that the gardens will be expanding its sensory-inclusive programming with CARD's resources.

  • "Tranquil Tuesdays is a great start. We're looking forward to exploring more ways we can be inclusive to neurodiverse people," Rominecki said.
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