A day at the Dollywood Family Amusement Park is filled with enough sights, sounds and colors to overstimulate anyone — especially those with autism.
That’s why Dollywood safety manager Judy Toth, who noticed an influx of families with children on the spectrum at the Tennessee park, decided to take action to help make their trip all the more memorable.
The result? A first-of-its-kind calming room that serves as a refuge of sorts for families seeking a break from the non-stop hustle and bustle of the 150-acre theme park.
“[It’s] sensory overload when you come to a theme park,” Toth tells PEOPLE. “And I couldn’t quite grasp at the beginning, you know, why are they coming? Knowing that something could potentially trigger their child. But realistically, it was just that they want their child to do what any other child does.”
The calming room first opened in the spring of 2016 after Toth observed that families with children on the spectrum were having to either end their trip early or slip someplace quieter, like a bathroom or a first-aid tent.
Knowing there had to be more solutions than the limited options available, Toth began researching, only to find that no existing theme parks had any sort of room in which families could unwind.
With that in mind, Toth reached out to Autism Speaks for help in creating the space, and after about a month and a half of work, the calming room opened its doors to parkgoers in May 2016.
“We just felt this is something that we wanted to do to give back to these families,” she says.
Parents who have disclosed that they have a child on the spectrum are told about the room at the ride accessibility center when they enter the park, and are given a 30-minute time slot if they decide they want to take advantage.
“It’s a nice, quiet environment. It has the dimmer switch for the lighting,” she says. “It’s cool colors, blues and greens. There’s a 6-foot beanbag, there’s a TV, there’s a rocking chair. There’s some sensory items, there’s the fiber optic light.”
Since the room made its debut, nearly 450 families have stopped by — and 336 families have told Dollywood officials that they visited the park specifically because of it, Toth tells PEOPLE.
“We’ve had some amazing stories and some wonderful crying sessions. When a family doesn’t know about the room, and then we find out their child [has autism] and we share that information, it’s pretty incredible to see their face,” she says. “Because it’s not a break room, it’s not just for the child, but it’s for the parents because they need that to get away from people judging them.”
One of those parents is Ashleigh Cathcart, a Murfreesboro, Tennessee mom who visited the room in July 2016 with her son after hearing about it in a Facebook group
Cathcart tells PEOPLE her son, who was almost 5 at the time of his visit, is high-functioning on the autism spectrum, but felt easily overstimulated by noise and crowds and struggled with waiting in long lines.
“I was so nervous about the crowds, the noise, and the waiting,” she says of their visit. “We had not yet taken him to an amusement park because we were worried about how he would cope, and whether we would be wasting our time and money in addition to putting our son in a frustrating situation.”
Cathcart says the services provided — not just the room, but also the ability to enter rides through a special entrance — made “a world of difference” for her family, and that her son was able to decompress in the room thanks to its various sensory tools.
“As a parent of a child with special needs … you want your child to be able to experience things that typical children get to experience and you want to do everything you can to make those experiences as enjoyable as possible,” she says. “Dollywood’s accommodations for children with special needs speaks volumes to parents walking this path.”
Toth tells PEOPLE that there is now a calming area at Dollywood’s sister waterpark Splash Country, too, and that other unrelated theme parks have reached out to her for help developing similar ideas at their parks.
“It’s near and dear to my heart that I have this opportunity that I can help these families,” she says. “I feel like I’m the voice for these families, and now these other properties are saying, ‘Hey, okay, Dollywood’s doing something and we want to jump on board and we want to be those people as well.”
The goodwill hasn’t stopped there. In the years since, Toth has also helped create an advisory panel at Dollywood made up of families who frequent the park to weigh in once a month on what aspects could use improvement.
So far, the panel has brought various ideas to the table, including adult changing tables, updated signage and host sensitivity and awareness training.
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