Update (July 10, 2018) -- Sesame Place in Pennsylvania is the world’s first amusement park to be declared a “certified autism center.” The park says it trains its staff to cater to guests with special needs, including those who are sensitive to sights, sounds, or motions. It also says it offers quiet areas, noise-canceling headphones, and a guide that explains how each ride may affect your child’s senses.
For the 1 in 68 children who will be diagnosed with autism, a simple family outing can be filled with anxiety. Symptoms of autism vary from person to person, but they may include trouble socializing, disruptive and repetitive behavior, and difficulty communicating.
Signs of autism may also include sensory processing problems, which can make kids hyper- (more) or hypo- (less) sensitive to lights, sounds, or smells, says Kristie Patten Koenig, an autism advocate and department chairwoman of occupational therapy at New York University. Hyposensitive children tend to seek more sensation like touch, sound, or light, which may lead to inappropriate behaviors.
A child who is hypersensitive, on the other hand, is highly aware of their surroundings and easily distracted by sights, sounds, or movements. Imagine if you were distracted by something as small as a colorful pattern on a rug or a flickering light in the corner of a room, Koenig explains. That’s why hypersensitive children can be so disoriented by the sudden sounds, rapid movements, and bright lights at movies, sporting events, or noisy restaurants.
Because these sensory issues are so common in kids with autism, one issue many families affected by autism face is finding sensory-friendly outings everyone can enjoy. Thankfully, some autism nonprofits are partnering with companies to offer special days, activities, or events that cater to kids with special needs. These unique events feature lowered noise, dimmed lighting, and specially trained employees that allow kids with sensory issues to fully enjoy the entertainment. Some even offer rooms where kids can take a break in case the sights and sound become too much to handle, Koenig says.
“These events open up an avenue for families to do things they normally would have said no to,” Koenig says. “They provide opportunity and access to an enjoyable entertainment experience without having to make your child fit into appropriate behavior patterns that they may not be able to.”
Below are a few examples of businesses that have changed their environments to be more welcoming for kids with autism. Koenig also suggests looking up event listings at your local museum, zoo, or organizations like the ballet or orchestra, which often put on sensory-friendly events.
- The Autism Society has teamed up with AMC Theatres to offer sensory-friendly movies, with more lighting and lower volume. Plus, families can bring their own snacks to accommodate any dietary restrictions. Kid-friendly movies (with G or PG ratings) are shown at 10 a.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. Check with your local theater or visit this site for specific movies and times.
- The Center for Autism & Related Disorders has partnered with Chuck E. Cheese’s to provide Sensory Sensitive Sundays on the first Sunday of every month from 9 to 11 a.m. with reduced lighting and noise. Contact your area location for details.
- Thanks to a partnership between Autism Speaks and the Noerr Programs Corporation, kids with special needs can visit an Easter Bunny who’s specially equipped to provide a welcoming, friendly experience at select local malls. Find out here if the “Caring Bunny” will make an appearance near you.