ORLANDO, Fla. (WFLA) – Gabbi Westra loves to beatbox, and she’s quite good at it! 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, Vicky Westra says.
As of 2018, one in 59 people is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
“Getting the diagnosis can be a challenge for parents today,” says Westra.
Both Gabbi’s mother, and her father, Pier have helped Gabbi overcome many challenges over the years. While they helped their daughter reach big milestones when she was young, Pier and Vicky knew 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 are fewer programs and fewer opportunities for them to connect to what they are passionate about doing for their career,” says Vicky.
However, 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.
Yes, Discovery Cove in Orlando is filled with adventure, charm and plenty of dolphins. More than that, the park 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.
“All of our employees have gone through training to make them equipped to handle guests that need special attention,” says Kelly Flaherty Clark, the VP of Zoological Operations at Discovery Cove.
Discovery Cove extended the invitation to the Westra family, to showcase what they have to offer to those like Gabbi, and it’s safe to say, Gabbi had a great time.
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.
One of those employees is Gina McDaniel. She was with Gabbi throughout her dolphin encounter.
“It’s kind of hard to find the words sometimes,” says McDaniel about when she has the opportunity to work with children and adults who may have an autism spectrum disorder.
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 explain these dolphin encounters can sometimes be so powerful for those with special needs, 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 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,” says 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 explains.
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,” Gabbi’s father says.
“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,” adds 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.