Beyond Disneyland: California Destinations My Autistic Son Loves

Beyond Disneyland: California Destinations My Autistic Son Loves


We live near the California Academy of Sciences (CalAcademy) and visit frequently; in fact Leo asks to go "to space" (see the movies in the immersive digital planetarium) whenever we start driving in a San Francisco direction. He also enjoys visiting the Aquarium with its walk-through Amazon rainforest fishies arch, and is game to check out the latest exhibits, like the current Skulls, where he and his sisters all got to touch, watch flesh-eating beetles gnaw on, and draw various animals' skulls. (Side note: Leo's dad made a behind-the-scenes video of the CalAcademy skull collection for KQED Science.)

CalAcademy has also has many spaces that tend to be less crowded if Leo is feeling overwhelmed and needs time to decompress—the living roof, two outside patios, a quiet reading room with a luscious polar bear pelt on the wall. We've used them all. CalAcademy also has a well-stocked café with enough food options to please Leo, his picky little sister, and anyone else we drag along. And the CalAcademy staff is always courteous and helpful, sometimes extraordinarily so. During our last visit we spent fifteen minutes talking with a docent about fish who breathe air.

It is also a mostly autism-friendly destination for full-family outings with relatives, friends, or out-of-towners. We drag everyone who comes to town to CalAcademy, because we know we'll all have a great time—including Leo.

CalAcademy Caveats:

I wrote about how CalAcade my could become even more autism-friendly in April 2013, and their guest services department even left a comment saying they'd pass on my feedback. As far as I can tell, however, nothing has changed in the Academy space itself, and their accessibility guide still does not mention accommodating autistic visitors.

It would be nice if they could offer options like sensory friendly Planetarium showings. It would be such a relief to not spend the entire screening anxiously wondering if Leo's boundless joy in the wonders of space, time, and science was going to turn into audible joy, and lead to us needing to leave early—which could then lead to a meltdown and a premature end to our day's adventures. We won't stop going, but for now our visits—which must include a Planetarium viewing; again, anything different is bad—will always have an anxiety undercurrent.


The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of my favorite places; I am so glad it remains one of Leo's favorite places, too. He loves to visit his anchovy friends and his jellyfish friends and his shark friends and his sunfish friends. And he really enjoys all the tactile and sensory experiences—the molded jellyfish on some exhibit walls, the wave tunnel, the flashing mackerels schooling inches from his eyes, swimming faster than you'd think possible.

Leo knows the aquarium well (I blogged about tips for visiting the MBAQ with autistic kids in 2009), so as long as we arrive early Leo gets to roam, and we can following him through the exhibits that catch his attention. He was drawn in to the current Tentacles and Jellies Experience exhibits, with their full range of sensory-immersive and easy-to-navigate interactive experiences, such as the cephalopod color and camoflauge video experimentation stations. Leo was able to control the entire video experience himself—it was that well-designed, that intuitive. We'll be back soon, because Leo will ask to go back soon.

MBAQ Caveats:

Um, it's far away if you don't live in Monterey? And my goodness, does it get crowded. Go early!


As Leo gets older (he's 13), he's starting to want more thrills from his attractions -- more roller coasters, more of the big spinny rides. There are several coaster parks in our area, and we might be reporting on them soon. But I'd also appreciate hearing about the theme parks and other destinations that work for your family, and why. I hope that, like us, folks are finding ways to have successful outings whether your destinations are accessible by design, or because of  your strategizing.

P.S. Articles about kids with disabilities needing accommodation at theme parks and other attractions can provoke hurricane-strength swarms of horrifying comment trolls. I don't and can't understand the mindset of such people, but apologies in advance if they descend here.


Shannon Des Roches Rosa writes about the Adventure Land that is her life at, and She is personally neither affiliated with nor sponsored by any of the above-mentioned attractions. 

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