ORLANDO, Fla. (WFLA) – Gabbi Westra loves to beatbox. She’s 22 years old and full of spunk but sometimes, she seems more like the young girl she once was.
“We got the diagnosis for Gabbi being on the autism spectrum when she was 4 years old,” her mother said.
As of 2018, one in 59 people is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
“Getting the diagnosis can be a challenge for parents today,” she said.
Gabbi’s parents, Pier and Vicky, helped her overcome those challenges when she little. They also knew that more would come as they prepared their daughter to live her best life.
“When adults turn 18 and leave the school system, often times there’s nothing. There’s fewer programs and fewer opportunities for them to connect to what they are passionate about doing for their career,” said Vicky.
But just a day trip away from the Westra’s home in South Tampa, there’s a place that is tailor-made for those who are just like Gabbi – no matter what their age is.
“All of our employees have gone through training to make them equipped to handle guests that need special attention,” said Kelly Flaherty Clark, the VP of Zoological Operations at Discovery Cove.
Discovery Cove in Orlando is filled with adventure, charm and, yes, plenty of dolphins. It is now the first all-inclusive animal interaction park in the United States designated as a certified autism center. It was certified by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.
Children and adults with autism say they feel included and welcome at Discovery Cove. They find comfort in the employees who are trained to help them.
Employees like Gina McDaniel. She was with Gabbi all through her dolphin encounter.
“It’s kind of hard to find the words sometimes,” she said.
The dolphin encounter is where Gabbi met Capricorn the dolphin, was able to give him a smooch and even swim through the crystal clear waters right along with him.
The trainers tell us these dolphin encounters can sometimes be so powerful for those with special needs that they’ve even seen children make eye contact for the first time in their lives with a dolphin.
Gabbi was also taken to a world below the surface of the water to hold sea urchins and swim through schools of beautiful fish, all the while every single employee she was with knew about her needs. They were there for her every step of the way.
“Knowing those needs up front is very helpful,” said McDaniel. “It allows us to do our job as animal care specialists even better than we do now.”
People diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder can be sensitive sometimes to things we may not notice.
“Things that often times don’t bother us – lighting, noise levels, maybe just crowds, too much activity,” Vicky explained.
That’s why Discovery Cove has also installed quiet areas where those who need to can step away from the crowds. There’s also a sensory guide planted right in the middle of the park where you can learn how every experience in the park rates in sensory stimulation.
“It’s kind of emotional to see that they’ve done this for our children,” Pier Westra said.
“Once you get the education like they did here at Discovery Cove, then they feel very prepared to be able to welcome families on the autism spectrum,” added Vicky.
If anyone deserves an experience like this, it’s the Westra family. They created a foundation to honor their daughter called “Autism Shifts.” The goal is to push for better outcomes for people on the spectrum including higher education, training and skills to give them a brighter future.
You can learn more about Autism Shifts on the organization’s website.
If you know someone who might benefit from a trip to Discovery Cove, you can learn more by visiting the park’s website.