St. Louis is home to one of the most intriguing monuments in the world--the Gateway Arch. It is a unique visual and sensory experience…but for those individuals on the autism spectrum, it can be an experience filled with potential challenges.
Autism is a mysterious disorder which affects approximately 1 in 100 children born in the United States. Amongst the many challenges this disorder presents is a strong reaction to sensory stimulation…so visiting a setting such as the Gateway Arch can be overwhelming.
Aaron Likens, author of Finding Kansas and autism awareness advocate for TouchPoint Autism Services, recently visited the Gateway Arch. As an individual who has aspergers syndrome - a milder form of autism - Aaron provided first-hand observations about what those on the autism spectrum can expect during a visit to this National treasure.
Walking toward the Arch, one cannot help but notice how its form appears to shift, even with the smallest step in any direction. While this was part of Eero Saarinen's intent, it can also be perilous to those who don't take time to watch where they are walking.
Security is the first step to entering the Arch and its museum. Regarding this part of the process, Aaron explains, "It isn't as bad as airport security…but if one isn't prepared, it can be stressful." If you are visiting the Arch with a child on the spectrum, make sure to take all metal objects out of his pockets and alert him to the possibility of a buzzer going off or even the potential need for him to be scanned with the wand. Once you and your child have cleared security, you're ready to see the Arch!
"The main hall of the Arch is an awesome sight, but at the same time, it can be a bit much as there is so much to see," observes Aaron.With the ticket counter one side, museum, exhibits on the other and the tram in front, be aware that an individual with autism will have a lot of information to take in all at once upon entering the facility.
One of the most exciting but potentially frightening experiences at the Arch for an individual with autism may be the tram ride to the top. "Being in the tram can be a rough experience as there isn't much room in each car. It was a little disconcerting at the beginning…as the tram swings from side to side. There are also some raspy noises, but this is normal."
For those who have concerns about the ride to the top, there is a test tram in the lobby where visitors can experience the small quarters of the tram cars before going to the top. Those with family members on the spectrum as well as those who are claustrophobic would be well-served to spend some time in the test tram car prior to the ride to the top.
Once at the top of the Arch, you will be treated to a panoramic view of downtown St. Louis! Aaron cautions, "The first thing I noticed before seeing the amazing view is that I needed to get my footing set…I was always standing on an incline or decline." There is no level ground at the top of the Arch and for those who are hyper-alert to sensory experience, as many individuals with autism are, this can be either exhilarating or frightening.
Another consideration at the top of the Arch is that it can be very crowded. Aaron observed, "the sound of people talking echoed around and seemed to be amplified. I could take it for awhile, but it got more and more crowded…one can't leave whenever one wants because the trams only leave every 10 minutes."
For Aaron, the most difficult part of the Arch experience was waiting for the tram ride back to ground level. "The hardest part of the journey for me was standing on the stairs in a confined space waiting for the next car. Personal space was almost non-existent." Be aware that if you are visiting the Arch with an individual with autism who finds confined space and crowds difficult to handle, you should probably carefully consider how the stressors Aaron observed will impact the experience for the individual.
Once back at ground level, Aaron viewed the movie, Lewis and Clark which is shown throughout the day in the museum's Odyssey Theater. While most people will find the four story screen and THX surround sound thrilling, individuals on the spectrum may find it too stimulating. "There were times when the film showed the point of view of a bird flying over the mountains. But for me, the hardest part was when a Native American tribe was playing drums as I have a sensory issue with them (drums)." Be aware that it is a dramatic, loud and visually stimulating film
After the film, Aaron took a tour of the museum, filled with animals and talking exhibits.Regarding the speaking mannequins Aaron said, "I could have quite easily been transfixed by them, but others might find them scary." He also observed that while the animals on display may fascinate some, they may also frighten others.
Throughout the museum are exhibits which may be tempting to touch.Please remember to keep an eye on children as well as individuals with autism and remind them to enjoy the museum…but don't touch!
As a resident of St. Louis, Aaron has a great appreciation for the Arch and what a privilege it is to have such an important piece of American history in his own backyard."A trip to the Gateway Arch is an event that a person can remember forever.I remember my first trip when I was 8 years old and I remember it for all the right reasons.I hope that all who visit the Arch have an amazing time, enjoy the view and take home a little knowledge about what the Arch represents to St. Louis and our Nation."
Special thanks to Joseph and Julie Devoti for participating in the photo essay accompanying this article.