Sensory-Friendly Experiences for Children with Autism

April is a month known for flowers, showers and the long awaited beginning of spring weather. It’s also National Autism Awareness Month, which The Autism Society, according to their website, launched to promote awareness and acceptance of autism. As a result of this increased awareness, businesses are creating environments that are friendlier to children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). From museums to movie theaters, venues all over the country are introducing sensory-friendly days to provide activities and events for children with autism who would otherwise be too overwhelmed by sensory stimuli to attend.

The UK-based National Autistic Society emphasizes that autism is not an illness, but a lifelong, fundamental part of an individual’s identity. Autism lies on a spectrum, which means that each individual is affected by it differently. People with ASD sometimes also have learning disabilities and other conditions which may require the individual to need more support. A common symptom of ASD is trouble processing sensory information like sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and body awareness. Individuals on the autism spectrum may be overly sensitive to these stimuli.

Oftentimes, individuals with ASD deal with high levels of anxiety when experiencing everyday stimuli and social interactions. In an effort to allow autistic children to visit museums or see movies in theaters, some venues have formed sensory-friendly days to make visiting these places possible. Sensory-friendly days are select days where the lights and sounds are modified to help children with autism who are overly sensitive to stimuli to not be overwhelmed.

The Seattle Children’s Museum, in partnership with the University of Washington’s Autism Center, is one such museum that offers sensory-friendly experiences. The museum opens their doors early several Saturdays a year to accommodate children with heightened sensory sensitivity. Lights are dimmed and sounds are minimized to provide a less overwhelming museum experience. Here are other museums across the U.S. that offer sensory-friendly experiences for kids. A quick Google search can also help you find museums with these types of experiences where you live.

Movie theaters across the country also offer sensory-friendly programs. For example, many AMC movie theaters offer sensory-friendly film programs to provide a safer, more comfortable movie going experience for children with autism. The theaters keep the lights turned on a little higher than usual, and the sound stays at a lower volume. At AMC theaters, children are encouraged to move around and respond audibly to the film, instead of adhering to the “silence is golden” principle.

According to the Autism Society, the AMC Sensory Friendly Films program began in 2007 after a Maryland mother, Marianna Ross, brought her daughter Meaghan to another theater chain to watch a movie starring her favorite actor. While Ross chose an early showing with fewer people to minimize possible conflict, Meaghan’s gleeful reaction to her favorite actor on screen resulted in complaints from other theatergoers, and the manager asked them to leave. Ross contacted the AMC theater in Columbia, Md. to ask if they might set up a special screening for children with ASD. Not only did manager Dan Harris comply, but he took it a step further and adapted the film viewing experience to be more sensory friendly. The event was so successful that the theater had to turn some people away. Harris continued offering sensory-friendly days monthly and then shared what he had created with AMC’s headquarters. AMC’s Community Relations Manager Cindy Huffstickler teamed up with the Autism Society of America to create sensory-friendly screenings at theaters throughout the country. The screenings proved to be successful, and continue to this day at many theaters. Regal Cinemas also offer sensory-friendly screenings for select movies in a program called My Way Matinee.

If your local museum or movie theater doesn’t host sensory-friendly days, don’t be afraid to ask. Contacting a location that you would like to offer sensory-friendly experiences can elicit conversations that will help these organizations better accommodate visitors with autism and other sensory processing challenges.

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