On the 10th of June 2024, Belfast Zoo achieved the Autism NI impact award. This is the latest development in a programme of activities at the zoo to support increased participation and deliver on its values as an organisation that celebrates diversity and champions inclusivity.

Autism NI is a partnership led organisation formed to promote positive collaboration between parents, professionals and autistic individuals and address the need for appropriate services. The impact award process affords organisations the opportunity to understand more about autism and how to support autistic customers and employees through a tailored programme of training and support.

In addition to a trained team of Autism Champions who have received AQA Accreditation, enhancements made at Belfast Zoo to support autistic patrons include the introduction of sensory packs, the availability of ear defenders, sensory signage and maps, alternative spaces for quiet dining and quiet hours (quiet hours allow people with sensory requirements to enter the zoo at 9am. This is an opportunity to enjoy peace and quiet in the zoo with family and friends before daily opening)

Director of Development, Christine Kearney said “Autism NI is delighted that the Belfast Zoo has achieved the Impact Award, for their commitment to accessibility for autistic and neurodivergent people. Throughout staff training and implementation of their accessibility action plan, Belfast Zoo have demonstrated great dedication to creating an inclusive environment for all customers and employees. It is fantastic to be able to support such a significant tourist attraction within Northern Ireland, as they work with us to play their part in building an inclusive society.”

Autism affects how people communicate and interact with the world. Autistic people interpret differently both verbal and non-verbal language, such as gestures or tone of voice.

According to the figures from the NI Census 2021 Over 35,000 people in Northern Ireland have been diagnosed with autism.

What many people may not recognise is the vast limitations that environments such as zoos can place on autistic children and visitors, where unpredictable, crowded venues can not only ruin a day, but prevent it from occurring at all.

Business support officer, Catrina Walsh said “For many autistic people, the unpredictability of queues or long waits and the loud noise of busy crowds can be very distressing, especially if they experience sensory overload. But making small changes such as providing quiet hours, or sensory packs can make a huge difference and help to ease stress and anxiety.”

Commercial support officer, Julie Bryans said “It’s been a pleasure to work with such a great team to achieve this award. All the staff have been so invested in wanting to make a difference and to translate the training and guidance into practice. Without these types of adjustments, autistic people and their families and carers can become isolated or prevented from going out and about and being part of their communities.”

If you would like more information on our sensory packs and quiet hours, please contact www.belfastzoo.co.uk or call us on 02890 776277.