Sitting near the entrance of the Audubon Zoo near two pachyderms who were about to enjoy a late afternoon snack, Eileen Johnson zeroed in on a young man who reminded her of her own son, Mark.
“I can spot an autistic person right away, even before they make one move or one sound,” Johnson said. “A few years ago, I would have never thought I would be saying those words.”
With that, Johnson, community relations director for the zoo, began to tell the young man’s family about the zoo’s upcoming Special Needs Day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
The inaugural event, which is open to families with children of any age who have physical or mental challenges, will feature live music, face painting and a chance to visit with many of the zoo’s residents. Admission is $3.
“We’ll have several of our zoo caretakers bring some of the animals out for the participants to visit with throughout the day,” Johnson said.
“It will be a great opportunity for people of all ages with special needs to experience the zoo in a special way. And for many, this will be their first visit here with us.”
Information will be provided by social service organizations including the United Way of Greater New Orleans, The New Orleans Advocacy Center and the Autism Society of Greater New Orleans.
When her son was about 2, Johnson said, she became concerned about his language skills.
“Mark just wasn’t speaking as many words as most kids do when they are 2 years old,” Johnson said.
“Not long after this, my husband and I brought him to the doctor, and our son was soon diagnosed as autistic. Of course, we were upset,” she said. “But even more, we were concerned about what we could do for Mark to help him then and as he got older.”
Johnson put her career on hold and stayed at home with Mark, working with him and finding ways to educate and engage him.
She read what she could find about autism and talked to others who had children with special needs.
And long before she was hired by the Audubon Zoo, Johnson said, she brought Mark to visit many times.
“Mark has loved this place from the very first time he came here as a little boy,” she said. “He loves the water and the animals that play in it. But the elephants are really Mark’s favorite animal here at the zoo.
“The sounds some of the animals make, their size, shapes and colors, and even their habitats make a zoo a very sensory-filled place. And all of that really appeals to many people with autism, as well as others with special needs.”
In 2007, Johnson established a support group for parents of children with special needs called Confront and Conquer.
The faith-based group meets once a month to hear a guest speaker at her home in Marrero, said Johnson, an ordained Baptist minister and a member of Household of Faith Family Worship Center in Harvey.
“I truly believe that parents of special needs children have a divine assignment and that they are hand-picked to nurture and love this child. And this is exactly what fuels me,” she said.
Now 15 and a student at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Mark is functioning well both at school and at home, his mother said.
“My husband, Mark, our daughter, Alexis, and myself as well see all the time what a happy kid Mark is,” Johnson said. “A person with special needs has a way of influencing you in so many meaningful ways. And as a family, Mark has changed our world for the better.
“On Saturday, I am hoping to see hundreds of smiling faces. I want this Special Needs Day to be the first of many more events like this to be held here at the Audubon Zoo. ”
For tickets and more information, call (504) 581-4629 or (800) 774-7394.