Melanie Isaacs is describing Elle, an 11-year-old girl with autism, who went to a Phoenix Suns game with her family for the first time: “At one point, she stood and began shouting, ‘Defense! Defense!’ In that moment, she wasn’t the girl who needed special attention, she was just part of the crowd.”
Pal is short for Partners to Assist in Learning, and it is Isaacs’ creation. Pal Experiences partners with local venues and creates videos that help walk families with children impacted by special needs through a visit before they do it in person. Pal helps parents and children know what to expect.
Isaacs’ inspiration came when she was working as a marine biologist at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Riding home from work on the train wearing her Shedd T-shirt, she encountered a father and and son who wanted to know about the aquarium.
The little boy was wearing a shark T-shirt, “So I knew he was my people,” Isaacs says, smiling. But when she asked if they’d been to the aquarium, the father explained it wasn’t something they could do, given his son’s autism.
“It broke my heart,” Isaacs recalls. She immediately wondered how she could help. “I started doing some research on it, and I found out that 79 percent of individuals with autism are socially isolated, as are their families.” This meant entire families were not able to fully participate as members of the community.
Fast forward a year, and she had developed her first prototype of Pal Experiences for the Shedd: A video that took kids with special needs through every step of the aquarium experience.
The video was shown to a group of children profoundly affected by autism. “They watched that video 72 times,” Isaacs recalls, explaining that, for this particular group, 72 viewings was the sweet spot. In the video, Isaacs included the fact that some animals may or may not be visible in their habitats.
Her most rewarding moment came when her group approached a walrus exhibit. “Oh no,” she said. “The walruses aren’t out!” The children all assured her, “It’s all right! The walruses may or may not be out.”
At that moment, Isaac knew she’d prepared the children for some of the eventualities at the Shedd.
Her videos typically start by showing the parking lot and continue through the entrance to a venue and then to the different exhibits. It gives information on things that could be triggers for kids with sensory issues, such as loud hand dryers in the bathroom, or shouting spectators at a sporting event.
The first step in developing videos is having a board-certified behavior therapist tour a facility or visit a sporting event to provide an analysis. All of the videos star children with special needs.
Pal Experiences’ Phoenix partners include the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, Phoenix Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks, Phoenix Mercury and — coming soon — the Arizona Science Center and a first restaurant: Flower Child. Partners pay a fee that helps cover the cost of producing the videos, but Pal Experiences is free for families.
Pal Experiences provides information about how loud the venue will be, the amount of walking required, the size of crowds, and how long visitors can expect to stay. Pal also gives nonverbal children a chance to communicate with caregivers to say “I like this,” “I am scared” or “This is funny” through different emoji options given during each segment of the videos.
Hana is a Glendale mom whose 8-year-old son Rick stars in the Children’s Museum of Phoenix’s Pal Experiences video. She says prior to being filmed, he watched a prototype video for the museum, and it made a huge difference in their visit.
“It really took away that initial apprehension, because he was able to see the space first, and he was able to point out the things he knew when he got there. Instead of me telling him it was going to be OK, he was able to watch for himself and know that he was going to be OK.”
Hana adds, “It feels good that we don’t have to stay at home — that we know that there’s a group out there that makes sure special needs families are included as well. Sometimes it feels very lonely being a special needs parent.”
“Everyone gets to go” is Isaacs’ motto for Pal Experiences. It appears she’s well on her way to making that happen. Learn more at palexperiences.org