Pal Experiences, a Phoenix-based non-profit organization, is helping make places more inclusive and accessible for guests with developmental disabilities.
Founder and Chief Inclusion Officer, Melanie Isaacs, got the idea for the organization while working at an aquarium. After work one day, she encountered a family that inspired her to want to help.
“One day on my way home from work, a father and a son approached me,” she recalled. “They noticed the logo on my shirt and wanted to know all about the aquarium. As we were chatting the son was getting more and more excited. When I asked if he’d liked to visit, the father quickly said, ‘Oh no, we can’t go to the aquarium. He has autism. It would be too hard.’”
It was then that Isaacs recognized the difficulties that special needs families face when trying to go out places.
“Seventy percent of families impacted by autism are socially isolated; it is just easier to stay home when some of the challenges with autism are anxiety over not knowing what to expect, sensory sensitivities, and differences in communication,” Isaacs said.
That’s where Pal Experiences comes in to help. With digital tools that are available online 24/7 and free to those in need thanks to fundraising, grants, and other partnering organizations, families have access to crucial information to help them plan and prepare for their outing.
A Pal Video foreshadows what to expect– showing everything from walking through security and smelling popcorn to waiting in line and leaving– decreasing anxiety and making new adventures more predictable.
Pal Place Web Pages provide sensory scales and insider tips so families can be prepared and bring what they need, like headphones, to make it a positive experience.
Pal Guide provides on-location support including a behavior chain and picture exchange communication so guests can communicate, through images, how they are feeling and things they need.
“Our tools were built using evidence-based best practices in behavioral therapy,” said Isaacs. “Just as a ramp helps guests who move differently, Pal’s digital tools were created to help guests who process differently.”
Pal currently partners with local organizations such as OdySea Aquarium, the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, the Phoenix Suns, and Arizona Diamondbacks so families can have fun together while feeling confident and prepared for their experience.
The organization also recognizes the value in not only creating resources for places that families want to go, but has resources for the places they need to visit too. Because of that, they have a partnership with Banner Children’s Urgent Care and have worked with Blue Star Recyclers to create an employment program that supports adults with developmental disabilities.
“The sky’s the limit with where our tools can work,” said Isaacs.
For more information or to access Pal Experience’s digital tools, visit: palexperiences.org