Being sensory-friendly helps travelers and visitors who have sensory sensitivities and experience sensory overload. And that affects more people than you might think. Becoming sensory-friendly can be quite simple. A few changes make all the difference to visitors and travelers. Traveling with autism for families with an autistic child can be especially difficult due to the child’s sensory sensitivity. It is important to know that other challenges make visitors seek out sensory-friendly experiences too. Other challenges include people of any age who experience anxiety, hearing loss, concussion, or PTSD.
Did you know there are easy things you can do to make a tourist attraction more sensory-friendly?
These are things you can do at any time of year. The more of them that you do, the more sensory-friendly your tourist attraction be it an event or location, becomes.
Are you a family traveling with autism? Maybe you one of the 1/3 of the population (our own research) with sensory sensitivity or experience sensory overload.
Share this blog post with a tourist attraction you want to become sensory-friendly. These steps also help you become an autism-friendly place.
Bonus tip: let people know what to expect.
Three of the most common ways the tourism, including retail and attractions, offer sensory-friendly experiences are:
Let’s explore each tip in more detail. It is an important reminder that you do not have to do all of them. But the more you do, the more sensory-friendly you become. And not just for people traveling with autism. You will help a lot of visitors.
An easy way to start is to make some hours of operation sensory-friendly. Choose times with a lower volume of visitors anyways. Alternatively, open a little earlier or close a little later and make those times sensory-friendly. A good rule of thumb is to reduce noise and reduce bright, flashing lights for sensory-friendly times. You can reduce noise by turning off background music. Is there equipment onsite that also makes a lot of noise? Can it be turned off for a period of time? You want enough light so that people can see and are safe. But oftentimes there are spotlights, flashing lights, strobe lights or really bright lights that can be turned down or off too. Try to limit the number of people so that crowds are not overwhelming.
Sometimes adjusting hours is difficult and it is easier to set a day as sensory-friendly. That can be one day of a multi-day event or the same day a week, like Sensory Saturdays! Follow the same sensory-friendly principles, reduce noise and lights. Also, pay attention to the other senses. Reduce smells and scents, be scent-free if you can.
We highly recommend this sensory-friendly strategy. Create a map of your location that lets people know where quiet and noisy areas are. Tell people where to expect bright and flashing lights. Let people know where the bathrooms are and especially if they are accessible, gender-neutral, or family-friendly. Have the map printed and available online for visitors to view.
As mentioned above, noise-canceling headphones are often included in a sensory-kit. But making them available on their own is helpful too.
Create a space that gives people, of any age, the opportunity to be removed from the noise, crowds, or brightness of your attraction and enjoy a bit of calm. So make it low noise, and lower light area. Add things like comfortable chairs. It doesn’t have to be fancy! You can include some quiet toys for children or quiet activities too.
Staff training can be formal or more informal. Organizations like us at Sensory Friendly Solutions are asked to provide staff training for example. You can also reach out to local organizations that represent the many people with hidden disabilities who have sensory sensitivity.
Asking for feedback can be scary. It is OK. You may not be able to fix everything for everyone all the time. But the best suggestions come from people who have direct experience. Ask people to tell you what they enjoy about your sensory-friendly attraction and ask them for suggestions on what to improve. More often, they are simple things that you can easily implement.
Sometimes busy, noisy, bright is part of the sensory-rich experience of your tourist attraction or event. Other times it isn’t possible to create a whole sensory-relaxed room. Creating a space that is quiet will be appreciated by many people. Reduce noise in this area and ask visitors to reduce their noise too. Post signs and let people know about quiet zones. Offer some seating too.
Some people are comfortable being identified with a special colored lanyard that indicates they have a hidden disability and might need more help from staff or will seek out all the sensory-friendly features you have to offer. Have sensory-friendly lanyards available for people to wear at your location or event. Make sure they have a quick release for safety.
This is the most important tip. Let visitors know what to expect. For children with autism, knowing what to expect in advance is very helpful. So this is key for autism-friendly places. It is also helpful to people with other disabilities that cause sensory sensitivities. It is OK that you are not able to reduce all the noise and all the lights. Giving your guests information in advance about the sensory-experience is helpful. It lets them make a decision about whether or not your location or event is a match for what they want to experience. Tell people what sensory-friendly changes you have made (and also what sensory-rich features to expect that have not been changed).
If you are looking for fun places to take an autistic child, choose tourist attractions that are sensory-friendly. Have you found a tourist attraction you want to visit and it is not sensory-friendly? Then send them this blog post.
If you are a tourist attraction that offers a sensory-friendly experience then list yourself in the Sensory Friendly Finder. Families traveling with autism look for sensory-friendly tourist attractions.
People around the world search the Sensory Friendly Finder for places and events to visit. We want to highlight the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, United States of America. They were one of the first listings in the Sensory Friendly Finder. They are a sensory-friendly champion and their staff has been very supportive of us.
Want to learn more about sensory-friendly tourism and how to make experiences sensory-friendly? Sign up for our Sensory Friendly Tourism newsletter.
Christel Seeberger worked as an occupational therapist for more than 25 years helping people with sensory sensitivity who experience sensory overload. Christel has sensory sensitivity herself; she has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. She founded Sensory Friendly Solutions in 2016. Sensory Friendly Solutions brings together people around the world looking for sensory friendly living and businesses and organizations who offer sensory friendly experiences.