Modeling Zoos and Aquariums as Inclusive Communities of Science: Developing a framework of inclusive practices for broadening the participation of autistic individuals

September 1st, 2021 - August 31st, 2025 | PROJECT

This award is funded in whole or in part under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (Public Law 117-2).

Zoos and aquariums have been offering programming, events, and visit accommodations to autistic individuals for several years. While these efforts can provide great experiences, they are focused more on accommodation and the outward-facing guest experience than inclusion. Lack of inclusion features in design, programming, and representation amongst zoo and aquarium representatives, ultimately limits full inclusion and adds to a sense in autistic individuals of not belonging and not being welcomed. To develop a fully inclusive experience for autistic individuals, this project will develop an evidence-based framework of inclusive practices for zoos and aquariums and build a community of practice around inclusion broadly. The project brings together researchers from Oregon State University, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Researchers will create and investigate the extent and ways in which a research-informed framework and associated tools (i.e. case studies, discussion guides, self-guided audits, etc.) and strategies support science learning for autistic individuals, and help practitioners expand access and inclusion of autistic audiences beyond special events or the general visit experience by applying inclusive practices for programs, exhibit development, internships, volunteer opportunities, and employment. To maximize impact, the project will develop and expand a network of early adopters to build a community of practice around inclusive practices to develop fully inclusive zoo and aquarium experiences for all individuals.

The project will investigate 4 research questions: (1) In what ways and to what extent are zoos and aquariums currently addressing access and inclusion for autistic individuals? (2) How do staff in zoos and aquariums perceive their and their institution’s willingness and ability to address access and inclusion for autistic individuals? (3) What is a framework of evidence-based practices across the zoo and aquarium experience that is inclusive for autistic individuals, and what associated tools and strategies are needed to make the framework useful for early adopters? And (4) to what extent and in what ways does a research informed framework with associated tools and strategies engage, support, and enhance an existing community of practitioners already dedicated to addressing autistic audiences and promote inclusive practices at zoos and aquariums for autistic people? The project is designed as two phases: (1) the research and development of a framework of inclusive practices and tools for supporting autistic individuals and (2) expanding a network of early adopters to build a community of practice around inclusive practices and an overall strategy of implementation. The framework will be informed through a state of the field study across the zoo/aquarium field that includes a landscape study and needs assessment as well as a review of literature that synthesizes existing research across disciplines for developing inclusive practices for autistic individuals in zoos and aquariums. The team will also conduct online surveys and focus groups to gather input from various stakeholders including zoo and aquarium employees and practitioners, autistic individuals, and their social groups (e.g., family members, peers, advocacy organizations). The second phase of the study will focus on sharing the framework and tools with practitioners across the zoo/aquarium field for feedback and reflection to develop an overall strategy for broader implementation and expanding the existing network of zoo and aquarium professionals to build a community of practice dedicated to the comprehensive inclusion of autistic individuals across the full zoo and aquarium experience. The results will be disseminated through conference presentations, scholarly publications, online discussion forums, and collaborative partners’ websites. The project represents one of the first of its kind on autistic audiences within the zoo and aquarium context and is the first to look at the full experience of autistic patrons to zoos and aquariums across programs/events, exhibits, volunteering, internship, and employment opportunities. A process evaluation conducted as part of the project will explore how the approach taken in this project may be more broadly applied in understanding and advancing inclusion for other audiences historically underserved or marginalized by zoos and aquariums.

This Research in Service to Practice project is supported by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products
Poster - Levels of Engagement for Autistic Individuals at Zoos and Aquariums
2023 AISL Awardee Mini-Poster: 2116026

Team Members

Kelly Riedinger, Principal Investigator, Oregon State University
Lauren Weaver, Co-Principal Investigator
Amy Rutherford, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2116026
Funding Amount: $513,660.00


Access and Inclusion: People with Disabilities
Audience: Evaluators | General Public | Learning Researchers | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Ecology | forestry | agriculture | General STEM | Life science
Resource Type: Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: Aquarium and Zoo Exhibits | Aquarium and Zoo Programs | Exhibitions | Public Programs

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This material is supported by National Science Foundation award DRL-2229061, with previous support under DRL-1612739, DRL-1842633, DRL-1212803, and DRL-0638981. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

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