×

Out & About: Group organizes sensory-friendly experiences

  • Jana Kieboam, of White River Junction, Vt., tries out the sensory-friendly tepee at the Lebanon Farmers Market in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2018. The tepee, which was set up by the Special Needs Support Center, is designed to give autistic people a break from the sounds and activity of the market. Kieboam said the tepee provides a relaxing break and felt autistic people would appreciate it. The SNSC has taken the tepee several other places including the Sharon Rest Area, where many people made use of it. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Monday, September 02, 2019

Leisure activities that others find enjoyable can seem overwhelming to people with autism.

Movies, concerts, plays and sporting events often involve loud noise, bright lights, chaotic situations and an overabundance of sensory stimuli. All of this can pose a problem for people with sensory-processing difficulties.

In recognition of the approximately 1 in 59 people in the U.S. who have an autism spectrum disorder, some entertainment venues, including major league baseball stadiums, Broadway theaters, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and even NASCAR, have been modifying their productions to be more sensory-friendly.

Now a new group in the Upper Valley, called Sensory UV, has begun working with local organizations to help them adapt their traditional programming — including films, theatrical productions and museum visits — into sensory-friendly events.

Sensory UV recently partnered with The Nugget Theater in Hanover to host a sensory-friendly showing of Toy Story 4. The lights and sound were adjusted, the theater offered a break area, and Sensory UV provided a “social story” in advance that gave patrons an overview of what to expect.

Sensory UV was started by the Dartmouth Autism Research Initiative in partnership with three area organizations that work with people with autism: the Hartford Autism Regional Program, the Special Needs Support Center and Keene Perspectives.

“We were all trying to answer the same question: how can we best support individuals with sensory processing sensitivities?” Caroline Robertson, director of the Dartmouth Autism Research Initiative, said in an email. “We hoped that by working together, we could make more progress and give back to the Upper Valley community.”

In an email Q&A done in collaboration with research assistant Madeleine Billings, Robertson discussed Sensory UV, some of the events it has offered and others that are in the works. The exchange has been edited and condensed.

Question: What characterizes a sensory-friendly event?

Answer: Sensory-friendly events promise a controlled, predictable environment for individuals with sensory processing difficulties.

Going to the movies is a community experience many of us might take for granted. But a movie theater can be loud, bright and unpredictable. A sensory-friendly movie screening might involve turning down the sound volume, raising the lights and allowing individuals to get up from their seats and move around during the showing, or even take a break.

These slight adjustments might make it possible for someone with difficulty processing loud sounds to enjoy the show and be a participant in a shared community experience.

Q: What other suggestions do you provide to theaters and other venues?

A: Once we have connected with a community partner, Sensory UV has three major steps in creating a new sensory-friendly event:

■1) A site visit: Sensory UV conducts a site assessment, from which we create written recommendations about the auditory, visual and olfactory environment of the site.

■2) Staff education: We offer venue-specific training — not only to increase staff awareness and understanding of disabilities — but also to explain difficulties that may arise in the venue’s particular setting and offer potential solutions.

■3) Event design: If space allows, we work with the site to set up a quiet respite area for individuals in need of a break. We also provide customized tools (“social stories” and “visual supports”) and an event synopsis on our website. This gives visitors who may have trouble adjusting to new or unpredictable environments a preview of what to anticipate.

Q: Even people without autism spectrum disorder sometimes dislike loud noises, bright lights, crowds and overstimulation. Would it be appropriate for them to attend a sensory-friendly event?

A: Of course! We wholeheartedly encourage everyone to attend sensory-friendly events. Our goal is to increase the “sensory friendliness” of community programming in the Upper Valley so autism understanding is a bigger part of our everyday community awareness.

Q: What other area events have you been involved with?

A: Sensory UV’s first sensory-friendly event was a movie screening of Pixar’s Up at the Lebanon Opera House this past March, and it was a smashing success! We had a turnout of over 80 people with and without sensory processing difficulties, and the Lebanon Opera House was a real pleasure to work with.

Q: What’s coming up in the future?

A: Northern Stage will present a sensory-friendly performance of The Sound of Music on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 2 p.m. We’ll also be working with The Nugget Theater to set up another sensory-friendly movie this winter. Watch the Sensory UV site (sensoryuv.com) and Facebook for updates on all of our upcoming events.

Other sensory-friendly events

■The Montshire Museum has many sensory-friendly exhibit stations, and also active ongoing staff education and community engagement efforts around autism awareness. For more information,visit montshire.org/calendar.

■At the Imagination Station in Barre, Vt., individuals with autism can explore a special “sensory room”: a psychedelic playground where every object stimulates or soothes at least one of the five senses. The room includes interactive displays, textured walls and climbable blocks that change colors, as well as a calming break room with weighted blankets and soothing celestial projections on the ceiling. For more information, visit https://www.wcmhs.org/imagination-station/.

■Storyland Amusement Park in Glen, N.H. has an upcoming sensory sensitive weekend (Sept. 14-15). The park will be closed during event hours and visitors will be accommodated with lower music, sensory-sensitive “calming rooms” and designated quiet dining areas. For more information, visit storylandnh.com/sensoryfriendlyinfo.

■ECHO museum in Burlington offers “sensory-friendly Sundays” throughout the year. The museum is closed to the general public from 9-10 a.m. on these specific days, the sound and lighting of the museum are adjusted and quiet spaces and noise-canceling headphones are available. For more information, visit echovermont.org/event/4489/2019-07-07/.