What Is a Sensory Friendly Event?

There are a lot of aspects of life that becomes more challenging when you become a parent. Things like, oh, grocery shopping for instance. I never realized before having children how much planning, preparation, and effort could go into getting two kids into a vehicle with their clothing on and basic needs met, drive them to a store, get into the store in a semi-organized fashion, effectively shop for the family’s needs amidst meltdowns, desperation to get out of said cart, and trying to purchase everything within reach, and then load the same children (hopefully still dressed with basic needs met) into the car and make it back home without forgetting eggs.

That said, things became far more complicated for us once we realized our eldest was having some deep sensory issues. Something like the zoo, which could be fun for many children her age, induced head banging, screaming, and holding her ears from the noise of too many conversations around her. I can’t say we hit a point where we thought we would never be able to integrate into society, but for quite some time (and even now), the wrong choice of event/location could lead to a downward spiral for a couple days. Before I get comments, yes we are in Occupational Therapy and working on making sure she has all needs met. 

That said, there’s a magical world out there for our sensory kiddos. It can sometimes take a little exploring to find this world, but I can assure you. It does exist. And this world is “sensory-friendly” events or times in places or situations that could potentially be far too large of a trigger for our sensory kiddos. 

The first sensory event we attended was at a small science center a couple towns over. They normally are closed on Sundays, but for their Sensory-friendly morning (sometimes called Autism friendly) they open one Sunday a month for 3 hours. This particular event was free as a way to be more inclusive for families that often make the choice to skip these experiences for the sake of their sensory kiddo. To call this morning magical may be an understatement. They dimmed the lights in their brighter exhibits, turned off the ambient noise in their installations (sounds like cars idling, water running, traffic sounds, sirens, conversations, etc), designated a few quiet zones for children/adults if they were feeling overwhelmed or needed a safe, quiet place to experience autistic shutdowns/meltdowns or to recenter. The best part for us though, was our little girl didn’t have fall out for the rest of the day or the day after. She thoroughly enjoyed herself because she had a small bit of control over her environment and her behaviors were normalized since she was surrounded with beautiful souls with similar needs. 

Another large benefit of these events are the fact that they often are far less crowded which can calm anxiety in persons who are sensitive to even the background noise of crowds. There is also an appreciation for lack of verbal interaction and space for the many types of communication. 

How Do I Find Sensory Friendly Events?

There are quite a few ways to find out about sensory-friendly events in your area. Everything from a Sensory-Sensitive Santa experience, to Autism-friendly train rides, to museum times catering to Sensory needs. Here are a few I’ve employed and found helpful:

  • Facebook Groups. I know, I know. You’re sick of Facebook mom groups. Hey, I get it. You can only be around the culture for so long before you want to chug a sugar free vanilla soy latte. However, finding specific groups tailored to your local area can be so helpful. Look for keywords like “your city” Autism/SPD parents, or “your city” ASD/SPD family support, or “your city” Autism/Sensory support. First look for your immediate city, even if you’re somewhat rural. Sometimes there are local parents in the same boat and networking as locally as possible can be such a blessing. But, also go to the next largest city and look there, then go to an even larger city. For instance, if you’re Vancouver, WA, first search for that city, then search for Portland, OR area as well. Even if it’s a little bit of a drive, often larger city groups have more events postings that can be helpful.
  • Facebook Events. Now, this one can be a little more tricky and can take some filtering. But, for the holiday season, looking through Facebook events was a goldmine of Sensory Santa experiences. Looking up keywords like “Sensory”, “Autism”, “Friendly”, “Neurodiverse”, and “SPD” can yield some great opportunities. Also, since Sensory and Autism events can be kind of new to the scene in your area, when you see an event, if you’re not able to attend, mark it as interested and comment that you are so happy they are hosting that event and hope to make it to a future one. Give businesses feedback that we want to see more neurodiverse accepting events in our area!
  • Ask businesses. Have a favorite children’s museum or art museum in your area? What about a library that holds storytimes that aren’t very sensory friendly? Email or call and ask them if they will be holding a sensory friendly event anytime soon. Let them know that you along with other families in the area would love to experience their services/exhibits but due to sensory needs, large crowds, sounds, smells, etc can all be triggers and it would be such a beautiful experience to give back to their community to have a special time to welcome in these families. You may even want to mention that it doesn’t have to be a full day. Even a designated 2-4 hour slot could be fantastic.
  • Check with your local parks and recreation programs. Most Parks and Rec departments have websites in 2018 with a full listing of events and classes, however, you can also call their customer service line and ask them what they have available, request a catalog, or pick up a catalog at most public libraries in most cities. In my area there is not only a city parks program, but also a county program, and a private parks program as well. Often it takes a little digging, but it’s well worth the work.
  • Find a class/event that looks like it may need slight modifications for your child. My child loves nature walks, however, one of our favorite paths is next to a main roadway, hello noise cancelling headphones. We love the library, but it’s far too busy in the afternoons for her to be able to enjoy being there, so we go first thing in the morning. She enjoys playing at the playground, but rough textures put her on edge, so we wear thick sweatpants and have a change of clothes available in the car. When we can’t change the environment, sometimes we have to equip our littles with their own modifications. 

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Tips To Prepare For Sensory Challenging Events

Sometimes though, sensory challenges cannot be avoided. We try to keep a toddler size backpack in our car at all times with some items to help modify the environment. That way if we are going in somewhere that may be challenging we can bring it with us, or if we are out and about we can run back to the car to grab an item. 

At the end of the day, listen to your instincts, do the best you can, and love your child wildly.