If you have never experienced it yourself, it can be difficult to understand what it’s like to feel deep anxiety and even physical pain as the result of being exposed to sensory stimuli like sounds, scents, lights, and crowds.
For people with sensory sensitivity, the intensity of these experiences ranges on a scale from mere inconvenience to completely incapacitating.
This issue is not nearly as rare as most people assume. In fact, 1 in 6 people living in the United States have either a sensory need or an invisible disability that makes them more prone to sensory needs. This group includes people with PTSD, autism, and dementia, as well as people who have had strokes.
Because being in public spaces can be so overwhelming, some people sometimes just end up withdrawing from the world. Their fear of overexposure to sensory input that may trigger a negative response forces them to isolate themselves from the world, effectively shutting themselves away from other people, experiences, and opportunities.
While there is still a lot of work to be done in this area, there is some hope on the horizon. The terms “sensory friendly” and “sensory inclusive” are finally starting to make their way into the mainstream, and innovative individuals and organizations are finding ways to make a real difference for people with sensory issues.
What’s the difference between “Sensory Friendly” and “Sensory Inclusive™”?
As awareness of sensory issues and the way they constrict people’s lives grows, an increasing number of businesses and other spaces are taking proactive steps to offer options and tools to help those affected.
There are two ways to do this.
1. The first is to create a sensory-friendly event. This involves removing all the stimuli—noises, scents, lights, crowd density, etc.—that might cause an adverse reaction in a person with sensory issues. Because making these changes to an existing space can require quite a bit of work, most locations only make them for specific days or hours, designating those times as sensory-friendly. Creating a sensory-friendly time or event is a great first step, but it only makes a destination accessible on a limited basis.
2. Sensory inclusion, on the other hand, paves the way for more comprehensive and consistent accessibility. “Sensory Inclusive” is a term coined by the team at Kulture City, the nation’s leading nonprofit focused on sensory accessibility and acceptance for people with invisible disabilities.
While a sensory-friendly approach might make a location accessible for an evening or a day, a sensory-inclusive approach makes it possible for an individual to visit a location at any time thanks to the availability of permanent modifications or additions, various tools, and staff training.
More places are creating sensory inclusive spaces and experiences.
Based in Alabama, Kulture City is all about—as the headline on their website proclaims—“Making the nevers possible.” They offer training, Sensory Inclusive Certification, and a variety of tools and resources including Sensory Bags, which include noise-reducing headphones and fidget tools; the Sensory Activation Vehicle (S.A.V.E.), a mobile sensory relief unit for use at venues that don’t have their own sensory relief spaces; and more.
Kulture City partners with a wide variety of venues and organizations to help educate the public and location staff about sensory issues. Daniel Platzman, the drummer for the band Imagine Dragons, became interested in Kulture City’s work in part because his mother was a child psychologist who worked with autistic children. Today, both Platzman and fellow band member Ben McKee are on Kulture City’s board, and the band helps increase awareness of the organization’s work with stage videos that run prior to shows.
Another company making inroads with sensory inclusion solutions is Nook. Nook’s primary service is providing on-demand semi-privacy pods for work environments and events. They also provide what they call a Sensory Nook – a product that, “helps neurodiverse people cope with challenging environments, reduce anxiety levels before they reach meltdown and in so doing prevent challenging behavior. The result of this is less exclusion and a much greater opportunity to access experiences most people take for granted.” Recently, Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, installed a Sensory Nook to provide greater comfort for neurodiverse guests.
Training is an important piece of the puzzle.
The various sensory rooms, noise-reducing headphones, fidget spinners, weighted lap pads, and other tools are very helpful in moments of crisis, but some of the most important work Kulture City does is training venue staff, event security, teachers, police officers, and others. The training helps people understand exactly what sensory sensitivity is, how common it is, how to spot it, and how to help.
The International Council on Development and Learning, Inc. is another training resource that is primarily tailored to assist parents of children with special needs, and to also provide resources for professionals and paraprofessionals.
Whether the event in question is a concert, a parade, a birthday party, or a grand opening, everyone should be able to participate. The individuals and organizations working to ensure that people who experience sensory sensitivity have equal access to all the experiences life has to offer are finding more and more ways to make that dream a reality.
Take the 2019 LOVELOUD festival, for example. This large-scale event brought together a veritable powerhouse of musical stars including Imagine Dragons, Kesha, and others to celebrate LGBTQ+ youth. Kulture City was a major partner, providing sensory rooms and sensory bags, making the event accessible to people who might otherwise have had to miss the amazing experience.
Here in Connecticut, more and more venues are starting to work to reduce the barriers that keep people from enjoying the events and locations the state has to offer. Several area museums and other destinations offer sensory-friendly events and visiting times. The Connecticut Historical Society Museum and Library offers sensory bags. And Constantino’s of Greenwich, a family-owned pizzeria and ice cream shop, is one of the first area restaurants to be Sensory Inclusive Certified by Kulture City.
It’s a prideful feeling for both businesses and families when inclusivity is truly achieved.