Many theater companies have started to create “autism-friendly” versions of various shows to better accommodate neuro-diverse audiences. Some key differences between these productions and typical ones include less intense lighting and sound effects to prevent sensory overload. They are also often less formal, with staff members giving audience members a heads up before a development in the play that can frighten or surprise them. Audience members are permitted to talk and walk around the auditorium. If necessary, they may leave and return to the venue during a production.
Many of New York City’s famous museums feature accommodations for visitors with autism. On select Saturdays, the American Museum of Natural History offers a 40-minute guided tour called “The Discovery Squad” from 9 to 10am, right before it opens to the public. Tours geared toured visitors between the ages of five and nine and ten and fourteen are available.
The Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum offers sensory bags to visitors which can include fidget toys and headphones to block out noise, as well as specialized programming and tours for visitors with disabilities, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers sensory maps to alert visitors about the crowd, noise, and light levels in different parts of the immense building.
Some amusement parks have also followed suit. Langhorne, Pennsylvania’s Sesame Place is the first such park in the world that the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) has recognized as a Certified Autism Center. This designation mandates that all Sesame Place staff be continuously trained to properly interact with children with autism and other developmental and intellectual disabilities. Their website provides resources to help families plan out their visits in advance, with particular attention given to any sensory difficulties the park’s attractions may trigger. Other autism-friendly features include two quiet rooms with comfortable seats and adjustable lights. Noise-canceling headphones are also available, as are low-sensory rides and parade viewing areas designed to tone down sensory stressors. Silent dining options are provided as well.
Meanwhile, LEGOLand in Winter Haven, Florida offers quiet rooms to all visitors who may need them and trains its employees in how to properly interact with visitors with autism. Other autism-friendly features they offer include a free “Hero Pass” that allows groups get to more popular attractions without waiting in line, and in-depth information about the experience a ride or attraction offers to give advance warning about attributes that may be overwhelming or scary.
Edaville Family Theme Park in Carver, Massachusetts also includes Thomas Land, which features a quiet train car, a sensory-friendly bathroom, stress toys for long waits in line, and quiet play areas.
In San Antonio, Morgan’s Wonderland is the first amusement park in the world designed to accommodate visitors with all disabilities. In addition to a “Sensory Village” that includes various imaginative activities, the area has no loud noises or bright lights. Other attractions include a wheelchair-friendly carousel and sandboxes, as well as an off-road adventures ride that permits wheelchair-bound riders to sit in the same car as their families.
Families who have older children with autism may prefer Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which introduced a “Calming Room” in 2016 for visitors with autism that experience sensory overload, and Six Flags Great Adventure and Safari in Jackson, NJ had its first “Autism Day” on May 3, 2018. From 10:30am to 6pm that day, the park reduced its light and music levels and shortened lines. For those visitors who still cannot wait, special accommodations were made, and decompression areas were set aside for overwhelmed children. They also created a ride rating system to evaluate their thrill and sensory levels, and included over one hundred staff members from the Gersh Academy, which runs a K-12 school for students with autism, to assist children and their families.
Meanwhile, Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio partners with the Autism Society of America to host an Autism Awareness Week in July. In addition to a sensory room that was added earlier this year, other such quiet spaces are carved out of the park, and sensory-friendly shows and food options without gluten are provided as well.
Though it can be an overwhelming experience for some people with autism, Florida’s Walt Disney World offers some play areas in the Magic Kingdom park that are more quiet than other parts of the park. They include sprinklers, playgrounds, and climbing equipment. The air conditioned first aid stations can also provide calm in difficult situations. If necessary, parents may also bring pen lights to reduce overwhelming darkness on relevant rides, ear plugs for louder attractions. An iPad or similar electronic tablet with sensory games downloaded can also help entertain children with autism while waiting in long lines, and Fast Passes can further reduce the stress of waiting.
For families more interested in regional entertainment, Dallas’ State Fair of Texas offered its first series of Sensory Friendly Mornings this year for three Wednesdays from 10am to 1pm. In addition to their guided itinerary, the fair toned down the typical lights and sounds at its midway during those mornings, and several “quiet zones” were set up.
Various other entertainment venues have also begun providing sensory-friendly opportunities for children with autism and their families. These include a number of Major League Baseball teams, who offer evenings designed for sports fans with autism. Their adjustments may include a lower speaker volume in certain sections of the park, quiet rooms, special activities, and free tickets for fans with autism.
AMC Theaters offers monthly screenings of child-friendly movies, which include brighter lights, no previews, and reduced volume. They also permit outside food to these showings to address any dietary differences audiences may have.
Skyzone, a chain of indoor trampoline parks sometimes offers special jump sessions every month. During these sessions, there is no music, and admission is half off. Pump It Up, which is known for its indoor inflatables, offers similar programming on a monthly basis. Music is turned off, as is apparatus that make a lot of noise when inflated.
Meanwhile, Delaware’s Dover International Speedway offers sensory-friendly NASCAR races once every late spring. Fans are seated in an indoor grandstand that includes dim lights, a quiet room, and an activity room for those visitors who are overwhelmed.
Sesame Street Live has also begun to include productions that are more suitable for audiences with autism. At these shows, parents are given notes about the production to prepare their children for overwhelming content. There is also a quiet break room as well as extra space for movement in the seating areas.
Disney on Ice, Disney Jr., and the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus also offer specialized shows for audience members with autism at certain venues. Features can include a behind the scenes presentation held before or after the show, photo opportunities with characters, information to prepare audiences for noises and effects that may be overwhelming, and a quiet room.
For those parents that hope for their children to be more active, countless YMCAs also provide programming for children with special needs, including autism. These may include specialized swimming classes, baseball and soccer groups, as well as social and recreational programming.
Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute has “Sensory-Friendly Sundays” every other month or so. Trained volunteers and employees adjust the exhibits to take into account such difficulties people with autism may have. When visits are troublesome in the first half hour, an alternative rain check is offered. They also provide sensory maps.
On the first Sunday of every month, select Chuck E. Cheese’s open two hours early for what they call “Sensory Sundays,” during which lights and sounds are reduced and the staff is specially trained. In Jacksonville, Florida, Bravoz Entertainment Center offers laser tag, climbing walls, bowling, an arcade, and other activities. On the first Monday of every month from September through May at 3-5pm, they organize a “Sensory Friendly Night,” in which music is turned off and there are fewer distractions than usual in the facility. Parents or other caregivers that bring children with autism to this event are admitted free of charge.
For those families that are interested in a cruise vacation, Royal Caribbean provides various accommodations for families and individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities, such as priority check-in, boarding, and departure, flexible menus for special dietary needs, and special accommodations for children who need them in their Adventure Ocean program. They also offer “staffed cruises” that staff that are knowledgeable about care for those with developmental disabilities as well as private activities, and respite sessions. Free access to The Autism Channel and autism-friendly film screenings, along with a toy lending program and a “Cruising Social Story” to help people with autism prepare for their cruise, are included too.
Traveling families that want a more stationary vacation may be impressed by the offerings of Beaches Resorts by Sandals. All of their Kids Camps are Certified Autism Centers, and their childcare staff is trained on a regular basis to ensure their competency in interacting with children with autism. Beaches also offers various customized culinary options to accommodate the needs of families with unique dietary requirements and restrictions.