Ryan Kelly and his family stare in awe at the one-eyed, red tail hawk named Medusa at E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center.
Like the majestic bird who was injured before coming to Biophilia, Ryan faced a bleak outlook on life after he was diagnosed with autism as a toddler.
"Doctors told us he would be institutionalized by the time he was 10," said his dad George. "He didn't even speak until he was six."
Today, Ryan and his family look like any other. The tenth-grader is adjusting well. He's already landed a job at Basmati's with his sister Darcey, and likes his teachers at South Walton High School.
Ryan joined dozens of other families with special needs children last Saturday afternoon at Biophilia for their first ever Celebrating Special Needs in Nature Day.
The Kellys are brand new to the South Walton area. While it's hard enough to adjust to a new area, for Ryan, change can be a little more difficult.
"It's a very friendly area," George said. "Basmati's and the school have been very open-minded, helping Ryan get acclimated."
Acceptance and inclusion is exactly what the Biophilia Center staff were aiming for at last week's event.
With no admission cost, events such as turtle feedings, hay rides and even entertainment from Reid Soria of Autism Sings were staggered throughout the day allowing participants the chance to partake in everything the museum had to offer.
"An event like this is awesome because sometimes kids with special needs get left out of activities," said Drew Geoghagen, ESE teacher at Emerald Coast Middle School.
Geohagan, who was chaperoning a few kids from his class, said the Biophilia Center is the perfect place to teach science.
"These students are very visual," he said. "We watched videos on nature to prepare the students, so they were very excited to come here."
On a slow hay ride, Panama City Beach mom Jennifer Hinton says offering an event that's not only educational, but free is a blessing for parents.
Families from east and west flocked to Freeport, many of whom had never even heard of the Biophilia Center before.
One special treat was a concert from Reid Soria, of Autism Sings, LLC. Diagnosed with severe autism at 3-years old, Soria's parents were told that he should be institutionalized, but they took another route. Today, the 27-year-old is a local celebrity showing his audiences that being different doesn't mean you need to hide from the world. He regularly plays shows to benefit non-profit organizations. On Nov. 23, Soria will play a benefit concert for Building Homes for Heroes at Howl at the Moon.
Getting to sing at Biophilia was an extra special treat.
"This is the way kids learn best, by touching and experiencing," said Soria's dad, Rick, a former educator.
During the Birds of Prey presentation, kids were treated to meeting a few birds that are living at Biophilia under the care of Lisa Miller, the Birds of Prey Rehabilitator. Birds such as Casper, a small Mississippi Kite, who is currently going through rehabilitation for a broken wing and a one-eyed Red Tail Hawk named Medusa captivated the children.
Whether it was animal feedings, or checking out the World of Wonder exhibit, Biophilia staff members happily interacted with kids and answered questions from the inquisitive minds.
"The one-on-one interaction with the Biophilia staff is great because it's not something teachers always have time to do in a classroom setting," said Kim Christopher, director of Special Olympics of Okaloosa and Walton County.
The general consensus of the Celebrating Special Needs event was positive among kids and families. Already, the Biophilia Center is planning to host similar events regularly throughout the year.
"This day is about letting the kids be themselves and for families to see what they may be interested in," Christopher said. "It gives kids a day out and it allows parents to see their children grow."
Want to go? Biophilia Center hosts its Fall Festival from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 2 with a haunted trick or treat trail, hay ride, the Science Brothers, Nonie’s Ark Animal Encounters, petting zoo, live music by Mike Whitty, carnival games, harvest produce, bounce house, Abrakadoodle arts and crafts, face painting, Tucker Duke’s food truck, and more. Admission is$8/adults and $5/children. Ages 2 and under free. The center is located at