Melanie Isaacs

Pal Experiences founder, Melanie Isaacs.

Most everyone has witnessed a child have a “meltdown” in public, with family members scrambling to dissolve cries and screeches by trying to divert the child’s attention. But for families with children or adults with hidden disabilities, like autism, a typical meltdown is anything but ordinary. 

“Venues have in place lots of wonderful accommodations to help guests who move differently, but fewer support guests who think differently, and that’s what we’re trying to change,” said Melanie Isaacs, the founder of Pal Experiences.

When someone is on the autism spectrum or has a mental illness like obsessive compulsive disorder, they can become overwhelmed by typical sounds, sights and other stimuli that people without these types of conditions are more comfortable experiencing.

Isaacs’ interest in this issue began when she worked at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium while contemplating her master’s thesis in marine biology. One day while riding the L train after her shift at the aquarium, a man approached her to ask about sharks. As they talked, she noticed that the man’s young son was getting excited. 

“At first, [the boy] was rocking a little bit, then jumping and slapping his arms,” said Isaacs. But when she asked him if he liked the aquarium, his excitement fled, and he didn’t respond. That’s when the father interjected with, “We can’t go to the aquarium, he has autism.”

This situation puzzled Isaacs. The topic became the focus of her master’s thesis and the predecessor to founding Pal in 2012. “We’re not out to eliminate [businesses’] sensory scene or change it. What we do is tell families what to expect,” said Isaacs. Pal does this by creating video tours and digital guides.

“Every program starts with a site visit from board-certified behavior analysts, which are Ph.D. level behavioral therapists,” said Isaacs.

The video tour uses the behavioral therapy technique called video modeling. Every video stars an actual family with a disability and follows them through their experience. Tours highlight the sensory elements the family encounters and aims to empower the viewer. 

“It’s different from a marketing video because it laces in all of these behavioral therapy techniques,” said Isaacs.

The digital guide uses behavior change to break down an extensive experience into small, manageable chunks. So with an aquarium, for example, the guide breaks down each step, such as parking the car and getting tickets. It also includes optical communication modules where children can communicate their feelings by pressing on an image, rate an exhibit and alert staff if they need help. 

“The point of having these tools is true inclusion,” said Isaacs, which means not having to self-identify or only have an experience when there is a specialized event.

“A lot of families are worried about the stigma because if their child does have a hard time, people are quick to say they aren’t doing a good job or that kid is bad, and that’s just really crushing to a family,” Isaacs said. “I truly believe that the more we can break that down, the better. When we’re all included, we’re all at our best.” 

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