Sensory-Inclusive Activities That Make Family Time Fun For All
Some of my fondest mother-daughter moments have been cuddling with my 10-year-old, Johanna, while watching the Nutcracker. Jo Jo, who has Down syndrome, loves nothing more than watching a Broadway show or attending a ballet performance. But three years ago, I thought our theater trips were over: Ushers threw us out of a dance show after claiming Jo Jo was making too much noise. Her crime? Squealing and clapping with delight.
I vowed never to subject her to that again—until a few months later, when I learned that the Theater Development Fund (TDF) in New York City partners with the advocacy group Autism Speaks to offer “autism-friendly” performances, which are actually geared toward any child with sensory issues or an intellectual disability. We soon headed to one of these performances for The Lion King, and I still remember the sweet mom in front of us reassuring me as Jo Jo kicked the back of her seat: “I enjoy it—she’s keeping time with the music.” Since then, we’ve had fun at Wicked, Aladdin, and The King and I, all without a single dirty glance being thrown our way.
Happily, there are many more opportunities like these for families to make these wonderful sorts of memories together, whether it’s at a show, a game, or just the local playground. “Twenty years ago, when my son Andrew, who has autism, was a toddler, there really were very few activities or venues that took his disability into account,” recalls Lisa Goring, the family services coordinator for Autism Speaks. “Today, there are over 7,500 events geared toward families like ours.” Much of that is thanks to trailblazers such as Julian Maha, mom to a 10-year-old son with autism and founder of the KultureCity, a nonprofit in Birmingham, AL, devoted to making venues and activities accessible to all. “Our kids might look and act differently, but they still want the same thing as typical kids: acceptance from their peers and to feel included,” says Maha.
What Inclusive Looks Like
Since 2013, KultureCity has worked with more than 60 family attractions—including the Birmingham and Phoenix Zoos, and the New England Aquarium—to make them more “sensory-inclusive,” meaning that the venues have adjusted some of the sights, sounds, and other stimuli at their location. While sensory issues are often associated with autism, the truth is many people with disabilities have trouble with sensory integration. Their brains process touch, smell, sight, movement, sound and even the pull of gravity differently and that can lead to a lot of stress and even pain. So when organizations commit to making changes, kids with a range of challenges can often benefit.
So what should you look for? Check the website to see if the venue provides pre-visit materials, which help parents prepare kids for what to expect. Many offer downloadable social stories and picture schedules, which are almost like little story books parents can use to show their kids what the place looks like and what they’ll do there so that they feel more familiar (and therefore comfortable) when they arrive. You might also find sensory maps, which provide a guide to less crowded spaces within a museum or zoo, for instance, or detail the “sensory-disruption level” of a ride at an amusement park. Venues will also often highlight break spaces, which are often filled with toys, mats, and pillows when kids need a chance to relax and chill out.
Groups may also take the initiative to offer specialized training to their staff, so they’re better able to understand and assist all types of children. (And, at the very least, avoid insensitive behavior.) These staff members will also be on hand to help families make the most of fast passes and/or programs with limited audiences. “Waiting in a long, crowded line can be one of the hardest things for a child with a developmental disorder,” says Ashley Grady, senior program manager at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, which offers many programs for kids of different needs. Other initiatives—like incorporating kids with diverse needs into promotional materials, offering inclusive summer camps, and giving out sensory-friendly kits with things like fidget spinners and headphones—are also important adjustments.
What all these actions strive to create is an environment where all kids are able to have fun together. And this goal is important, even if you personally don’t have a child with special needs. “We’re hoping that as more places become sensory inclusive, more kids with disabilities will attend events with their typical peers,” explains Maha. The happy side effect? A positive feedback loop that fuels acceptance and understanding among everyone.
But first, of course, you must know where to start. No matter what type of experience or event you’re looking for, we’ve found places nationwide that are prioritizing all types of families—and if they don’t happen to be near you, we’ll tell you how to find them. Your weekends are about to get a lot busier!
While physical accessibility is key here, the really good ones offer so much more than that: They’re designed to foster connection. “Bells-and-whistle features like expensive wheelchair swings are nice, but they can ultimately promote exclusivity because typical kids usually aren’t allowed to use them,” explains says Dawn Silvia Oates, founder of the Play Brigade in Brookline, MA, a nonprofit dedicated to creating inclusive playgrounds in every Boston neighborhood. Her daughter Harper, 6, has partial paralysis from a spinal-cord injury. “Instead, I like to see ramps on and off of playsets, wheelchair-friendly flooring, and activities that activate all senses, like a sand table or a music space, for kids who are visually or hearing impaired.” These activities appeal to all kids, so it’s more likely that a typical child and one with a disability will naturally end up playing together.
Museums nationwide are working hard to be welcoming to all kids.The Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC, for instance, have special mornings once a month that allow kids with any sort of disability early entry. They also offer pre-visit materials on their website, like social stories and picture schedules, and a break space. Other museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, offer a monthly Sunday workshop, “Discoveries” for families with kids ages 5 to 17 who have developmental disabilities. The museum also offers guided touch tours for people (including kids) who are visually impaired, as well as tours for kids who are hearing-impaired. The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia has Melita, a puppet that has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, who participates in daily puppet shows, while the Discovery Museums in Acton, MA, developed Especially for Me, an event series for kids with developmental, vision, or hearing impairments.
Find One Near You: Easy! Check the accessibility page on your local museum’s website.
This past April, Philadelphia-area Sesame Place made headlines when it became the first theme park in the world to become a designated autism center. When doors opened on April 28th, all staff had received special training on sensory issues, autism, and how to work with kids with all sorts of communication, behavioral, and motor issues. The website also now has a downloadable sensory guide that rates each ride. For example, the Flyin’ Fish ride, which simulates moving up and down on the ocean, has a very low impact on overall senses; however, riders are notified that there’s a buzzing noise as the ride spins and that there’s a slight spinning sensation and wavelike motion. Sesame Place also offers a Ride Accessibility Program; parents fill out a survey and a staff member creates a personalized list of rides and attractions for the child. The park also offers two quiet rooms, noise-canceling headphones, designated “low sensory” areas (parts of the park that tend to get less traffic and are less crowded), and two featured events—a story time and art—with Julia, the Sesame Street character who has autism.
While Sesame Place is the only amusement park to have an official autism-center designation, others are also doing their part to try to make their activities more accessible. Legoland Florida, for example, worked with Autism Speaks to create a comprehensive guide for guests with disabilities, which lists ride-by-ride safety requirements, as well as a no-wait Hero Pass, which allows people who have difficulty moving around, or standing in line to zip to the front. They also offer quiet rooms with noise-canceling headphones, squishy toys, weighted blankets, and Lego building tables. Plus, employees are all trained on how to interact with guests with autism.
Find One Near You: If you’re thinking about visiting a specific amusement park, simply check out the accessibility page on their website.
Since 2007, AMC Theatres and the Autism Society have partnered up to offer “Sensory Friendly Films” as a way for kids with developmental disabilities. During these showings, offered on the second and fourth Saturday of the month, lights are turned up and the sound is turned down. Kids are encouraged to get up, dance, walk, shout, sing, and in general make as much or little noise as they want. Some Regal Cinemas offers My Way Matinees, which offers a sensory-friendly showing once a month at select theaters, as do other, smaller chains like the midwest’s NCG Cinemas.
Find One Near You: Locate a participating AMC theater at amctheatres.com (clicking on “sensory-friendly films” under programing at the bottom of the screen); for Regal Cinemas, head to regmovies.com/promotions/my-way-matinee.
In October 2014, the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama decided to modify one night of their annual “Boo at the Zoo” event. “We lowered the scary music, turned down the lights, and offered things like weighted blankets to passengers riding the train,” says Roger Torbert, vice president of education. The results, he says, were overwhelming. “Over 300 families with children who have special needs were able to attend,” he recalls. “But what really stood out for me was a mom of a non-verbal 22-year-old who came up to me and told me that this was the first time in fifteen years her family had been able to stay for the whole event.” Torbert was so moved that he decided the zoo should offer inclusive programming all year round.
The next year, the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama became the first designated sensory friendly zoo, offering noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, quiet zones, and weighted lap pads. Plus, the zoo has also made adjustments to classes and summer camps to make them more sensory friendly. They also worked closely with KultureCity for training. Other zoos have undergone the same training, including the Akron Zoo, the Phoenix Zoo, the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, RI, and the Racine Zoo in Wisconsin.
Find One Near You: Visit your zoo’s accessibility page on their website.
It might seem pretty impossible to change the environment of an entire stadium, but several are making serious strides. The employees at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena undergo sensitivity training by KultureCity and are equipped with special sensory bags to pass out to fans who might need them. (They include noise-canceling headphones as well as gadgets for nervousness, such as a fidget spinner.) Plus, the stadium features designated sensory rooms where kids can go to chill out if they feel too overwhelmed. What’s more: The arena also alerted the National Basketball Association to what they were doing, who eagerly hopped on board. By October 2018, the NBA will have 18 different venues that will be sensory friendly, says Tod Jacobson, senior vice president for social responsibility for the NBA. “We’ve seen just how big of an impact very slight changes can have on making our venues and events inclusive for folks 24/7,” he says.
The NBA isn’t the only athletic organization trying to making a difference either. At last year’s NFL Pro Bowl, the league worked with KultureCity to come up with their own “Sensory Sack” and designated quiet room, and it plans to do the same this year. Plus since 2014, the National Baseball League has partnered with Autism Speaks to offer a special autism-awareness night each April, including quiet rooms and visual stories parents can print out in advance.
Find One Near You: You can find a list of sports arenas that have worked with KultureCity at kulturecity.org/sensory-initiative.
If you’re craving the bright lights of Broadway, you can sign up to get notifications for tickets for autism-friendly performances from TDF at tdf.org. (And you may even see my daughter and me in the audience with you!) These shows have had some slight adjustments made to them—strobe or spotlights don’t shine quite so bright, and sounds aren’t quite as loud—but in general, the main difference is that the staff on duty is trained in autism awareness and offer helpful assistance if your child has a meltdown. Best of all, you’re surrounded by other nonjudgmental parents of kids with special needs.
You can also check out the Big Apple Circus, which offers sensory friendly programming in various cities across the country, as does the Pittsburgh Ballet, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. In fact, with a little help from Google, you can find events in most big cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Minnesota, and Seattle. The challenge is you have to plan ahead, since these events may only happen once or twice a year.
Find One Near You: Ticketmaster will show you a calendar of sensory-friendly events in your area. Autism Speaks also has a listing of activities—including shows—in your area.