Sensory-friendly events are becoming mainstream. More people identify as having a sensory-sensitivity, and seek them out. To be inclusive, people, businesses and organizations must learn how to offer sensory-friendly events. Sensory-friendly events are happening around the world and in different ways; from birthday parties at home to performances in-person and online. They also happen for children and adults, alike!
What is a sensory-friendly event?
A sensory-friendly event is best when it takes into consideration the 8 different senses. When that happens, it ensures guests who experience sensory overload or sensory sensitivity feel comfortable. Although many people may be unaware of how to plan a sensory-friendly event, it can be done! Additionally, this research, “The Sensory Totes Programme: Sensory-Friendly Autism Program Innovations Designed to Meet COVID-19 Challenges” by Fletcher et al., (2022) has found that sensory-friendly events can benefit both people with and without sensory sensitivities 1. Read on to learn about some common changes to make an event sensory-friendly.
While planning a sensory-friendly event, it is important to focus on three things:
How to create a sensory-friendly event
An easy solution to help make your event more sensory-friendly is to provide additional training to any staff members or volunteers at your event. Many people are unaware of helpful ways to communicate with guests who have different needs, or guests with disabilities. Furthermore, negative interactions or experiences can cause guests with increased sensitivity to feel upset or isolated. Therefore, providing simple training before hosting your event will help to ensure that each guest feels comfortable and welcome. Your staff and volunteers will feel more comfortable too, when they are ready to help all your guests.
An important part of a sensory-friendly event is informing guests of the different activities that will occur. For many people with sensory sensitivities, creating expectations of the event beforehand is key. Knowing what to expect, helps people prepare. Additionally, sharing this information in advance gives guests the opportunity to identify activities that may be overwhelming. Help your guests avoid sensory overload; share details in advance, like the schedule for the event.
Pick your space
The first factor to consider about your location is all about the space you choose. Ensure that you have a big enough space to accommodate the number of people attending. That is important for COVID-19 protocols, but equally as important to make people feel comfortable. Especially people with sensory sensitivities. Crowds can be uncomfortable and overwhelming. Moreover, people with hypersensitivities to touch or sound may experience sensory overload while standing close to others.
Consider hosting your event in a large space. You can choose an open space, but be cautious if there is too much “echo.” Be mindful of the number of people attending your event and plan the space accordingly. You want to encourage people to be able to walk around easily and not feel confined to a small space.
Reduce noise levels
Another factor to consider when planning your event is the noise level. Loud sounds can be easily overwhelming for people with sensory sensitivities. Even the sounds of multiple people talking may cause someone to experience sensory overload. Therefore, reduce background noise. Avoid loud announcements unless necessary. And if you are not hosting a musical event, they avoid background music!
Add quiet zones
In addition to managing noise, create a designated quiet zone at your event. A quiet zone is a specific area that is away from crowds of people. Additionally, it is a place for silence and relaxation. Offer a quiet zone and your guests will not feel overwhelmed. It give people a temporary break.
Lighting is an important factor to consider when planning a sensory-friendly event. Oftentimes, large venue halls will have bright fluorescent lights. Or outdoor events may be in direct sunlight. Bright lighting, be it artificial lights or natural light can bother many people.
To eliminate this issue, chose locations that have adjustable lighting, e.g. ceiling lights, wall lights and lights that dim. If you are outdoors, add tons of shade with tents, awnings, umbrellas, etc. If you are inside, ensure there are adjustable blinds. This will help to create a less sensory-rich environment and a more calming space.
Another location factor to consider at your event are smells. Reduce any strong scents. This includes things such as scented candles, essential oils, strong-smelling plants, etc. A scent-free environment is preferred as certain smells may cause a guest to feel uncomfortable or irritated. Be mindful of the smell of cooking. While enticing to some, it is overwhelming to others. Good ventilation is important.
Ensure bio breaks: food, water and toilets
An essential part of any sensory-friendly event is offering food and water for guests. Alternatively, instead of offering it, allowing guests to bring their own. The feelings of hunger or thirst can be extremely irritating for everyone. Ensure there is a nursing
Furthermore, toilet access is the most important criteria to build in. It is important that all guests have the ability to use the toilet facilities. Consider at least one toilet for every 15 people. For public events, employee events, check your local or regional rules and guidelines. You should include toilets that are:
- wheelchair accessible
- gender neutral
- family friendly
Add a nursing station, breastfeeding pod or private lactation room for moms and babies.
Add sensory-friendly kits
A helpful strategy that creates a sensory-friendly event for guests is to have sensory-friendly kits available. Within these kits, you can include things such as sunglasses, noise-cancelling earplugs and sensory-friendly toys. This will be helpful for any guest that may feel overwhelmed throughout the event. That way if it is hard to adjust noise and light at your location, guests can adjust it themselves with their own kit.
Look out for Sensory Friendly Solution’s sensory kits that will be available for purchase soon!
Allow for small groups or solo
If you are planning to do a large group activity, consider options for small groups or solo activities too. For instance, many people find being in a large group overwhelming.
Additionally, in group activities, help people find roles that they enjoy and roles that they can participate in. For instance, at an event with children, a child may be shy to speak, or some children do not speak, but they can hand out event supplies.
Choose sensory-friendly activities
Throughout your event, include different sensory-friendly activities.
- alternate large group with small group/solo activities
- offer movement breaks
- alternate a loud activity with a quiet activity
Create a sensory-friendly event that invites, welcomes and engages more guests. Besides it increases accessibility and inclusivity, too. Additionally, for more ideas, check out this autism-friendly events guide.
Finally, are you interested in learning more about sensory-friendly topics as a business or an organization? Check out our other posts!
- Awesome Trade Show Ideas: Virtual and In-Person
- Autism Hour vs. Sensory-Friendly Shopping
- Good Presentation Skills: Make it Sensory-Friendly
- What Is a Sensory-Friendly Environment?
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- Fletcher, T. S., Wiskera, E. S., Wilbur, L. H., & Garcia, N. M. (2021). The Sensory Totes Programme: Sensory-Friendly Autism Program Innovations Designed to Meet COVID-19 Challenges. World Federation of Occupational Therapists Bulletin, 78(1), 44–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/14473828.2021.1943868