Sara Kirlin has grown up with the South Carolina Aquarium. One of her earliest memories is peering into the Carolina Seas exhibit, and meeting the sea turtle biologists in the hospital. Now a senior at Faith Christian School in Summerville, Sara is certain that she wants to embark on a career path that involves caring for animals. This decision was solidified through her involvement in the South Carolina Aquarium’s SPLASH program, a volunteer opportunity for young teens to volunteer as an exhibit guide with a parent or guardian. In 2015, Sara was selected for the highly competitive Aquateen volunteer program. Sara recalls, “Every day as an Aquateen brought new discoveries and beautiful memories to my life.”
Naturally, the South Carolina Aquarium came to mind when designing her senior leadership project. For this project, Sara needed to find a way to have a positive impact in the community. She also thought of Peyton, her young cousin with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. Through Sara’s experience with Peyton, she realized that children with autism can’t experience the aquarium the same way that she does. For Peyton, bright lights, loud sounds, crowds and open outdoor areas are over-stimulating. Sara noticed that Peyton’s frustrations were always calmed by the tanks with colorful fish.
Through a partnership with the Lowcountry Autism Foundation, LAF, MUSC staff were able to provide training for South Carolina Aquarium staff about the many facets of ASD and how to best serve this audience. The aquarium opened early for members of LAF to visit. Bright lights were dimmed, recorded sounds were turned off and stanchions with descriptive signage reminded parents of what was ahead in each gallery. Sara also worked with LAF to create Social Stories, or guides for new experiences. These Social Stories were designed for parents to read with their children to help them to navigate the parking garage, understand the role of aquarium staff, describe the importance of water in every animal’s life and prepare for the open outdoor areas like the Mountain Gorge and Salt Marsh exhibits.
Volunteer scuba divers wowed the crowd with bubbles, back flips and non-verbal communication. A quiet classroom space was provided for families to regroup and prepare for the exploration ahead. A sensory classroom provided an unstructured play space with Lego blocks, parachutes and other activities.
Sara will give her final presentation to her school in May. “This experience was all that I hoped it would be! I couldn’t have done it without the support of the Education Department, MUSC and my family. The children were able to be themselves, explore a place that I hold dear and maybe even find a new passion for the natural world.”