This time last year, it would have been hard to find a Hong Kong resident unaware of the launch of Ocean Park’s much-anticipated Water World. What is less well known is that the destination has since become Asia’s first autism-certified water park, offering inclusive, accessible and sensorially friendly facilities for visitors with autism and other sensory sensitivities.
Specifically, Water World has been designated a Certified Autism Center by the US-based International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). To celebrate, the water park partnered with nongovernmental organizations over the summer to invite more than 200 guests, including autistic individuals and their caregivers, for a visit. According to Bryan Fish, Ocean Park Corporation’s executive director, developing caring, socially inclusive initiatives is a priority for the company.
Compared to neurotypical people, autistic and sensory-sensitive individuals find it harder to adapt to new routines and environments. Such issues can unfortunately come to the fore in entertainment spaces that lack inclusive facilities.
Besides providing training to front-line team members, Water World has added IBCCES Sensory Guides to its attractions. The guides indicate how rides may affect the five senses: touch, taste, sound, sight and smell. Each sense is rated on a scale from 1 to 10, with descriptions detailing the experiences involved. For example, the sensory information for Surf Striker, an indoor surfing simulator, includes: “potential for close proximity / shared space with other visitors”, “sounds echo” and “natural lighting and overhead lighting”. With such information available on Water World’s website, sensory-sensitive visitors can avoid the stress of evaluating options on the spot.
Stella Tse and her son enjoying Water World. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Psychologist Victor Ching, who works with children with special needs and their parents, helped to evaluate Water World attractions’ compatibility with the IBCCES Sensory Guides. “Playing around other children in public spaces can help to enhance social and communication skills,” he notes.
Stella Tse was among those who visited Water World with her autistic child. “My kid loves the park so much: it provides a spacious environment for him to relax and chill, and I don’t have to feel embarrassed when he overreacts, because there are a lot of kids having exciting moments and running around,” she says.
Tse began by exposing her son to the less stimulating activities, building up gradually to more energy-intense rides.
In Asia, mental health issues and neurodivergence are still sometimes considered taboo subjects. However, a shift in attitude is also apparent.
“More and more facilities are claiming to be autism-friendly, which makes it easier to bring my kid out,” says Tse. “I used to feel scared when I encountered an unfriendly response from the staff at other venues, but here I feel totally welcome and (the staff) offer help whenever I need it.”
As the first water park in Asia to be autism certified, Water World hopes to inspire the city’s other leisure destinations to follow suit. Ching notes that indications about attractions’ sensitivity levels help make a huge difference. Improving inclusivity and accessibility for neurodivergent individuals in society is a journey. While Hong Kong may have a long way to go, it certainly has taken its first important, and encouraging, step in that direction.
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