LA Zoo offers program for autistic kids

LOS ANGELES Snakes are only something 9-year-old Baxter Berle has read about so he can't believe he is able to touch one.

"It felt like I was going to be his supper," said Baxter.

"A lot of children with autism definitely relate to animals. I'm not really sure why," said Baxter's mom, Julia Berle.

Seeing animals first hand at the zoo is a rare experience for Baxter and many kids like him.

"Heat is a problem, noise is a problem and sound is a problem. The food can be a problem, walking can be a problem, listening can be a problem -- it can be fraught with conflict for parents," said Julia.

"It's a difficult economy, it's difficult to raise children, and then to have this on top of all that, it really makes it that much worse," said Rob Shepherd, L.A. Zoo trustee.

The board of trustees at the L.A. Zoo heard parents' concerns. So they created a program specifically for kids with autism.

"It's a perfect venue for kids with autism," said Mayer Cohen, L.A. Zoo docent.

Tour guide Mayer Cohen coached at the Special Olympics. So he understands how animals can reach a child with autism.

"Just the reaction of the child, and the fact that you can really spark their imagination and have an interplay with them that sometime they don't have in public life," said Cohen.

While this private tour is a unique sensory experience for kids like Baxter it's also emotionally rewarding for the parents.

"To have the opportunity to get out and do it without judgement and do it with greater ease and to give our kids a "normal" experience is something you can't put a price tag on," said Julia.

"I think it's pretty awesome just to stay here for school," said Baxter.

The L.A. Zoo just started their tours for kids with autism, but due to funding it may not be a permanent program.

April is National Autism Awareness month. During that month the zoo would like to hold a zoo weekend just for kids with special needs but they need a corporate sponsor.


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