“I notice that when he comes to the zoo, it’s like something just opens up. In fact, he doesn’t just walk in the gate, he walks extremely fast, almost running,” says Mark Johnson. That may not be surprising for most children, but it’s a step in the right direction for Mark and Eileen Johnson’s autistic son, Mark Junior.
Eileen Lumar-Johnson says, “A lot of parents have a tendency to kind-of shelter their kids and not bring them out into the community, but there is so much to touch and feel and see and engage and what we’ve always done with our son is expose him to as many people and as many events and as many new things as possible.” Some of the activities at the zoo aren’t just entertaining for kids like Mark, they’re actually therapeutic. The carousel for example, helps Mark gain better equilibrium and once he feels more balanced, he really opens up!
Eileen is the director of community relations for Audubon Zoo and has been bringing Mark to the carousel and petting zoo for years. Eileen has extensively researched different therapies, diets and education to treat autism and shares her knowledge through a support group she and Mark created called ‘Confront and Conquer.’ “Once we came through all of those emotions,” says Eileen, “we did our best to create an outlet for parents who are going through the same thing or who are going to be experiencing what we experienced.”
Mark says, “It’s just like spreading the wealth. You want to pass it on. You want to help other families that are hurting, that need this. So we get a lot of fulfillment out of just helping people.” Eileen is now continuing her mission through the Audubon Zoo’s first ever special needs day, encouraging families of children with special needs to experience the sensory benefits first hand. It’s an opportunity to spread her message of hope, that there is fulfillment and fun, beyond a child’s diagnosis.
Special needs day is Saturday, December 8th and tickets are $3.