Families looking forward to autism-friendly park planned for downtown Tucson

City of Tucson and Intermountain Academy to build autism-friendly playground

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A new park in downtown Tucson could be a game changer for hundreds of children in the community.

The City of Tucson and Intermountain Centers are working together to develop a park specific to those on the autism spectrum.

“It would nice to have an inviting place for kids like Cole,” said mom, Stephanie, Tuesday afternoon. Due to HIPPA, center staff asked us to only use first names in this story.

Stephanie spends several of her afternoons with her 10-year-old son at Intermountain Academy. The center provides a variety of programs and support services to a children and adults diagnosed with autism, specialized educational needs, developmental disabilities and more.

Cole was diagnosed with autism at 2 years old and often wears noise-cancelling headphones to help with anxiety.

“A lot of kids on the autism spectrum can feel things more intently. The noise, the movement of things," Stephanie said.

Inside, Cole can work on sensory issues and become more acquainted with a busy setting. But, when it comes to being a kid outside, what is meant to be a fun afternoon can quickly turn scary.

“The environment around him can be a lot," Stephanie said. “He can run off, too. So I keep in close proximity. And the other kids aren’t always sure of him and what he’s doing. If he’s making sounds or noises."

The panic of a public playground may soon turn into a problem of the past with plans for the autism-friendly park, just off Interstate 10 and St. Mary’s Road. Several people attended a public meeting Tuesday, March 10, 2020 to take a look at plans and share ideas for the new space.

The proposed park’s features include a separate sensory play space for younger kids (ages 2 to 5) and older kids (ages 5 to 12), as well as five themed zones that have sensory playscapes and equipment. It will also have features for children with physical disabilities and plenty of shade sails and trees.

The City of Tucson and Intermountain Centers are partnering to develop a park specific to those on the autism spectrum.
The City of Tucson and Intermountain Centers are partnering to develop a park specific to those on the autism spectrum. (Source: Intermountain Centers)

“It would be engineered to really capture the interest of individuals. Not just with autism, but of varying abilities," said Ken Baumgartner, program director for Autism Services.

The park will be gated and monitored by the city Parks and Recreation Department. It will be open to the public from dawn to dusk, but Intermountain Academy will have the only access during school hours.

According to Intermountain, the new park will be one of the only parks, west of the Mississippi, designed to accommodate those on the autism spectrum and will include elements for those individuals with physical disabilities.

“Socialization is really important for him,” Stephanie said. "It’s hard for him to go up to a kid and ask to play, but to have other kids around him doing things he likes to do would be sensational.”

Development of the new park is a multi-phase project and each piece will be completed as funding becomes available. The city and Intermountain Centers are pursuing a variety of funding options, like grants, donations and impact fees or bonds.

The Tucson Parks Foundation is accepting donations for this project at tucsonparks.org.

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