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Tips for Planning a Sensory-Friendly Event

Volunteers a sensory-friendly event

At a Glance

In this post, we will cover some approaches for making sure your sensory-friendly event is properly equipped to cover the needs you wish to address.

Logistical questions and process from start to finish will be discussed.

We will also focus on making sure event organizers and attendees are on the same page around expectations and understanding around the event.

In this post, we’ll expand on our previous post on this topic by discussing logistics.


We will cover some approaches for making sure your event is properly equipped to cover the needs you wish to address.


We will also focus on making sure event organizers and attendees are on the same page.


Welcome back to our mini-series on hosting sensory-friendly events, where in part 1 we talked about how they are defined and some ways to approach thinking about what types of sensory accommodations may be necessary for your event. 


In part two we are going to hone in a little more on some ways of approaching your event that can help you more easily incorporate the sensory accommodations you have in mind as well as some suggestions or requests you might receive from potential attendees.

Logistical Questions

Incorporate Thinking On Sensory Accommodations From Beginning of Process

For experts on sensory-friendly events, this might seem like an obvious step, but for people just getting started it can be an easy trap to fall into! It might seem reasonable on the surface to, for example, plan on figuring out the components of the event and then after that figure out how to incorporate sensory accommodations and activities. 


But approaching in that way can leave you stuck in situations where the types of accommodations you can realistically offer are limited by circumstances! 


For example, considerations like venue choice can happen rather early on in the process but can be a major determining factor in whether you will have the space to offer a quiet/decompression room, the ability to operate in small groups, and whether the venue will allow you to modify the space to meet particular accommodation needs.


When you incorporate conscious decision-making about how your event will be sensory-friendly from the very beginning, you’re simultaneously keeping your options open and showing that sensory concerns are a top priority, which they absolutely should be when an event is advertised this way.

If Supplying Food, Aim for Simple, Broadly Popular and a Variety of Options

Depending on your event, food might range from a few snacks to a full-on catered meal. While your choice of refreshments can be proportional to the event, there are still ways to be considerate of sensory needs whether you’re just filling up a bowl with snack foods or creating an exciting spread. 


Knowing that your circumstances may change depending on where you live and the nature of the event, two key goals to aim for are to try to pick foods that are fairly simple, broadly well-known, and to make as many options available as is practical within your time and budget. 


The goal in trying to emphasize those two factors is to increase the likelihood that people who do experience sensory challenges with food will have an option they are familiar with. 


While there are lots of fun and cute things you can theoretically do with a spread, erring on the side of those two factors gives you the best odds of ensuring a positive experience for everyone. 


Of course, this will not guarantee that every single person who walks through the door will have a dish they can enjoy, but we will cover this more directly in a later section about keeping lines of communication open.

Ensure Your Goals Are Realistic and Don’t Overpromise

When planning events from the outset, we know how exciting it can get to think about all the possibilities, and it can be all too easy to get ahead of ourselves and start making declarations about what our events will include before we know for sure that we will be able to deliver everything we promise. 


In a non sensory-friendly event this can lead to some disappointing outcomes but in many cases probably isn’t the end of the world. 


But when you start promising specific sensory accommodations, you are specifically inviting people who may be reliant on that accommodation to even be able to safely attend the event in the first place. 


Obviously, sometimes disaster strikes and we cannot prepare for everything that will go wrong, the aim here is to at least have a concrete plan for how a given accommodation will be implemented before you start telling people that it will be part of your event. 


Don’t rely on the idea that you’ll figure it out eventually!

Consider How You Will Manage Crowd Size and Spacing in the Schedule

One common suggestion in choosing sensory-friendly activities if you are working with a large group of attendees is to alternate between large group and small group activities, with plenty of opportunity for movement breaks. 


It’s a great thing to plan on doing at your own event, but depending on your venue and resources the logistics of doing so might be tricky. 


Your expected attendance relative to your space, for example, might limit your ability to have smaller breakout groups or solo activities that really feel quieter and calmer if everyone is still kind of packed together in the same room. 


With that in mind, you may find that you need to plan for staggered attendance or putting a cap on the number of attendees to carry out the specific activities you think are important for your event. 


This is another great example of an area where you do not want to find yourself scrambling for a solution last minute!

Designate a Person to Handle Late Changes

Your ability to follow this suggestion may be dependent on your resources, but one strategy that can be incredibly helpful is to designate a person whose other duties are relatively light so that they can focus their energy on incorporating late changes or accommodations in the event such a need arises. 


When you are gearing up for your event, you may find you are too busy with all of the things you already have planned to handle additional accommodation requests. 


Designating a person ahead of time to be available to manage such requests will avoid putting you in uncomfortable dilemmas where you know a request is reasonable but you’re not sure how to reprioritize your resources in crunch time to make it happen.

Let Support Staff in for Free

This is a relatively small addition but an incredibly important one to note. If your event involves paid attendance, it is important to keep in mind that some individuals with sensory needs may also require support staff, and that charging support staff to be part of an event represents an additional barrier to entry for those attendees. 


Making clear that support staff can attend for free eliminates this particular problem. 


In the event that you need to consider staggering or capping attendance, it may be worth requesting that attendees who do require support staff let you know so that you can account for it in your planning.

Getting on the Same Page

Share What Sensory Accommodations and Activities Will Be Available Ahead of Time

As much as we emphasized earlier that it’s important not to overpromise accommodations, once you do have a good idea of what will be available it is incredibly important to get the word out! 


One reality of sensory-friendly events is that they cover such a broad range of activities not every single one can be expected to fit every single person’s needs. 


Making the accommodations you’ll have available as clear as possible will go a long way toward helping people with sensory needs make an informed decision about whether this particular event is right for them and is another way of helping avoid those situations where someone shows up expecting a particular type of accommodation but you cannot provide it. 


The more people have a clear sense of what to expect going in, the less likely you are to experience avoidable conflict.

Solicit Accommodation Requests Ahead of Time

The other crucial component of advertising the accommodations you will make available is showing you have an open line of communication for anyone who wants to submit additional accommodation requests. 


While the hope is always that our existing planned accommodations will be the right fit for everyone who wishes to attend, keeping this line open with potential attendees gives you the opportunity to account for the possibility that you’ve missed something relevant to a person or people in your community. 


As always, your resources are your resources and depending on the request you may or may not be able to incorporate a given accommodation into your event space. 


But in those cases where an accommodation is feasible, it would be a shame to exclude someone simply because you did not realize they had a specific need that you could have easily met. 


Even in those cases where an accommodation isn’t possible at this specific event, this type of communication also gives you the opportunity to increase your awareness of the needs of your community and incorporate those types of accommodations in future events.

Prepare Staff/Volunteers Ahead of Time

The obvious part of this advice is that the individuals working on your event should have a strong sense of their responsibilities and who to report to if there is a problem. 


One additional layer worth considering, however, is that your event volunteers should have a working knowledge of all of the accommodations that are available at your event as well as how to access them. 


After all the hard work we’ve done ensuring so many great accommodations are available at an event, the last thing we’d want is for someone who is expecting a certain accommodation to not receive it because there was a miscommunication about how to access it. 


When the event is life, your staff and volunteers are going to be some of your best vectors for letting attendees know what is going on so it’s important to make sure they are equipped with the information they need!


The solution can be fairly straightforward - if you have a list of accommodations and where to access them then those can easily be distributed among your staff so they don’t have to rely on their memory if someone comes up and asks.

Kick Off the Event With a Greeting

While this may feel a little bit overly formal for certain types of events, kicking off with a greeting from the organizers can help you accomplish some crucial goals in crunch time. 


Most importantly, it is an opportunity to go over all of the available accommodations and sensory activities with everyone who has attended, make clear who they can talk to if there is a problem or they have questions, and reiterate your commitment to creating a positive experience for all attendees. 


It helps further demonstrate every step of the way that you want everyone to be informed and on the same page, and that you are always open to discussions on how things can be improved.

Conclusion

Event planning is not an easy process, and when it comes to sensory-friendly events the stakes can feel that much higher because it is meant to cater to people who aren’t always included and in some cases may experience harm if certain accommodations are not available. 


Add to that the fact that even sensory events cannot always be everything to everyone and it can begin to feel like a whole lot of pressure. We hope these tips have shown that there are proactive ways you can try to avoid some of the worst planning pitfalls. 


More importantly, we hope we’ve demonstrated that there are ways you can show your commitment to equity throughout the process and demonstrate that you take sensory accommodations seriously even in cases where you’re not able to do every single thing you might have liked to do given more resources and/or time. 


The core crucial principle at work is that sensory-friendly events are meant to be sensory-friendly first and foremost and that your planning and use of resources should reflect that reality. When you are able to consistently demonstrate that you have the right priorities, navigating the potential challenges becomes that much easier.


If you’d like to hear more about sensory-friendly event planning or a specific topic we’d love to hear from you! Just drop us a line at hello@autismgrownup.com.

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