Hokie BugFest celebrated the creepy-crawly world of entomology to educate the community about this often-underappreciated group of animals. However, large events like these can often exclude individuals with autism or other special needs.

“The reason we host this whole event is because it relates to our interest in science literacy and trying to get people to be a little more knowledgeable and appreciate science, appreciate the environment, and appreciate bugs,” said Mike Weaver, founder of Hokie BugFest and professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We have a lot of people [with special needs] come to this event, and we need to do something beyond just putting them into this crowd because it is overwhelming. We are trying to go beyond just accessibility.”

To engage the whole community in science, Hokie BugFest makes it a priority to accommodate children with autism and other special needs. The Virginia Tech Pesticide Programs collaborated with the Center for Autism Research to certify the event as SAFE (Supporting Autism Friendly Environments) in an effort to ensure that individuals who would like to enjoy the event can fully do so.

Amy Azano, associate professor in the School of Education of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, founded SAFE in 2014 to create more accessible and welcoming spaces for individuals with autism and their families and friends. SAFE provides customized, on-site training for various organizations interested in implementing autism-friendly changes as part of their practice. The growing list of partners includes the Lyric Theatre, the Children’s Museum of Blacksburg, and the Moss Arts Center.

“Sensory challenges can serve as a barrier for individuals with autism. They can make certain events and environments difficult to navigate. Many people with autism participate in behavior interventions, so they might learn to adapt to various situations. However, the SAFE program asks how environments might take some of that pressure off the individual with autism,” Azano said. “We can try to minimize barriers to make places and spaces more inclusive, more accessible, and more enjoyable for all.”

With nearly 10,000 visitors throughout the day, Hokie BugFest can feel overwhelming for individuals with autism or special needs, making it difficult to fully enjoy the event due to large crowds and sensory overstimulation. Each year, those who need to are able to access the event starting at 9 a.m. before doors open to the public at 10 a.m., so they can enjoy all the bug-themed exhibits, games, and crafts without the accompanying crowds.

“It’s important for all kids and their families to feel included in events like this. We work with a lot of families who find it hard to go to events that other kids and families get to go to because they’re afraid that behaviors might come out or that people might judge,” said Jennifer Bertollo, a doctoral student in the Clinical Science Program in the Department of Psychology in the College of Science. “These events show them that they can come and have fun at an event that feels normal for them — they can come and play like every other family.”

An elderly woman in a bright red jacket inspects the large array of insect exhibits, which are comprised of butterflies in large glass cases.
Every year, thousands of people gather at Hokie BugFest. Kendall Daniels for Virginia Tech.

Additionally, individuals who need a little more space to maneuver can actively participate without feeling cramped by the crowds. For example, Parker Burgard, a big Hokie BugFest fan, uses a walker.

“This is the first time we’ve come in during the early time, and it’s been great. The kids love it. We felt like it would be easier for Parker with his walker, since it’s hard to navigate through big crowds. He’s been able to get to more and see more,” said Nicole Burgard, whose children, Parker and Claire, look forward to Hokie BugFest every year. “I love that they do this because it allows a lot of families to access this event since they might not have been able to otherwise, especially for kids with sensory needs. It makes us feel more included.”

Beyond opening early, Hokie BugFest collaborates with the Center for Autism Research to designate quiet rooms with bug-themed toys for guests to enjoy throughout the day. Spaces like these allow individuals, especially those with sensory processing disorders, to participate without the crowds and volume.

Two parents arrive with their child to a booth that is adjacent to the Mobile Autism Clinic van, which is adorned with mountains, maroon puzzle pieces, and the Virginia Tech logo. Two members from the Center for Autism Research greet the child with excitation.
The Mobile Autism Clinic conducts advocacy and outreach work to provide resources and services to families in the area. Rasha Aridi for Virginia Tech.

Furthermore, for the first time at Hokie BugFest, the Center for Autism Research’s Mobile Autism Clinic parked outside of Squires Student Center. Bertolli and other volunteers and researchers spoke with guests about the center’s services. The clinic provides assessment and therapy services to the Blacksburg community and to rural areas that may lack such programs.

This year’s Hokie BugFest took place on Oct. 5. The 10th annual event will be held again next fall. Hokie BugFest is hosted by the Department of Entomology, Virginia Tech College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, Virginia Cooperative Extension's 4-H program, and the W. B. Alwood Entomological Society, the department's student-run professional organization, and sponsored in part by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

~Written by Rasha Aridi