What Are Sensory-Friendly Events and How Can I Plan One?
At a Glance
In this post, we'll define sensory-friendly events and what they may look like.
Common sensory needs will be covered and how to accommodate for a variety and spectrum of needs.
Lastly, we'll discuss important steps to planning a sensory-friendly event.
Sometimes finding venues to socialize is about more than just putting yourself out there. For many autistic people, certain types of events can prove overwhelming to the senses and become a space where meaningful socialization isn’t possible, and at its worst can even be harmful.
While autistic people who face such sensory challenges often find themselves navigating different types of events to determine which ones are a good fit. But there are also ways to plan events that anticipate and accommodate a variety of sensory needs and sensitivities. While this concept can tie into a range of different activities, they can all loosely fall under the umbrella of sensory-friendly events.
So what is a sensory event? The Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative (ASERT) offers this lengthy definition:
“A sensory-friendly event is an event that is designed to be less sensory-stimulating and overwhelming. This approach often makes it easier for individuals who have sensory sensitivities, such as those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), who are sensitive to things like noise, colors, sounds and smells, to participate in social activities and community or professional events. If your event is open to the public, you may not know if someone planning to attend has sensory sensitivities. It is therefore important to consider ways to make events welcoming for everyone who may attend.”
This definition covers quite a few important points, but we think it might be a little bit complicated for a baseline definition. Here is our best attempt:
A sensory-friendly event is a public-facing event featuring a range of accommodations meant to create less sensory-stimulating and potentially overwhelming experiences. Such events are planned specifically with people who have sensory needs in mind.
While there are a variety of potential approaches to creating sensory accommodations based on the nature of the event, the crucial element is that those approaches are central to how the event in question is going to work. A concert and a reading hour might have very different-looking quiet areas, but they can both be part of a sensory-friendly event with the right planning!
Sensory-friendly events can also operate in different degrees, with some focused on decreasing sensory input, others in eliminating it, and others still in creating specific boundaries and structure around sensory experiences.
Sensory-friendly events also need not limit accommodations specifically to those related to sensory needs! The core focus may be sensory accommodations, but it can be a perfect time to consider other types of accommodations that might help to make your event more accessible to more people!
In future posts on this topic, we will talk about some strategies for planning ahead and making sure you have the resources to offer these accommodations.
In this post, we are focusing on several different types of sensory needs that can pop up and some potential ways to accommodate them.
As always, one of the best ways to provide good accommodations is to ask the people who would benefit from them, especially those who would want to regularly attend your events!
This guide offers some helpful starting points to try to anticipate a wide range of needs, but feedback from people who understand the specifics of your event and want to relate their own experiences is crucial to a robust and reliable policy/plan.
Common concerns: There are a variety of ways that latent sounds can represent a source of sensory overload depending on the person experiencing it.
For some, louder noise might be tolerable when that is the purpose of the event but disruptive noises can be overwhelming. In other cases, the noise inherent to the event itself might be too much.
When a particular sound or environment is causing sensory overload, it can be hard to concentrate on much else until the problem is resolved.
What a sensory-friendly event could do: Many autistic people who are susceptible to sensory overload from sounds will seek out items like earplugs or headphones to mitigate some of the offending noise, while others might opt to remove themselves from the situation entirely.
As an event planner, you can ensure that these types of accommodations are readily available at the event so that individuals don’t have to choose between the event itself and avoiding sensory overload.
Bringing earplugs to give away is an important step, as is finding a designated quiet space that does not require individuals to leave the event in question and ideally will still allow for as much participation as possible based on the activity in question.
Additionally, while some events may require a degree of noise to function as intended, it is always worth considering whether the particular event you are planning could have a more focused noise policy to go with its sensory-friendly structure.
As nice as it might be to receive accommodations to navigate certain sensory challenges, it can also be incredibly liberating to be able to attend events that are normally a sensory overload and simply enjoy the quieter environment rather than having to worry about headphones or a quiet space.
ASERT makes a special point of emphasizing checking in about potential latent background noises that you might not actively think about otherwise.
Examples of these types of noises could include conferences that would typically feature background music, clocks that make ticking noises, proximity to other loud events occurring in a similar space, and crafting activities that happen to involve particularly noisy tools.
Common concerns: Much like with sounds, there are a variety of ways touch can become an overwhelming sensory experience depending on the individual. For some, touching certain textures can be a problem while for others getting touched even in an incidental and accidental way can be extraordinarily stressful.
Events with large, compacted crowds can really elevate this anxiety as well even if touching can be somewhat avoided. Having to maintain a state of constant vigilance to avoid being touched in a crowd can be incredibly draining at best, and at worst it might not even be enough to prevent those sensory overload moments from happening.
To further add to the challenge, some events or social gatherings may by default encourage touch-related greetings like high fives or handshakes and place the expectation on people who don’t want those things to explain themselves every time it comes up.
This can also be exhausting, and sometimes people aren’t especially gracious when they want a handshake and don’t get one.
What a sensory-friendly event could do: In the latter case, you as the event organizer have the power to take on some of the work around setting and enforcing social boundaries within the context of your event.
You can, for example, create a system by which people silently indicate whether they are open to receiving things like hugs, high fives, or handshakes so that they do not have to constantly communicate their preference.
By showing that your event supports people with this particular sensory needs you are also putting yourself out there as the person to talk to if someone who has very rigid ideas around social norms decides they need to complain to someone as well.
Whenever we have the opportunity to minimize the labor required of people who have sensory needs just to function at an event we are working toward supporting and welcoming their presence!
When it comes to questions of crowd size, the best approach may depend on the nature of the event itself.
In some cases, large crowds might not be 100% avoidable, in which case maintaining those designated quiet areas that are still part of the event space can be a crucial safety valve.
Alternately, some events might better lend themselves to crowd control strategies like staggered or capped attendance.
Mitigation is a valuable tool whenever you’re able to use it, and effective safety valves are essential particularly when there is a limit to how much mitigation you can achieve.
Common concerns: As with our last two (spoiler alert: and the next two) senses, there can be a range of ways that smell can pop up as a sensory issue.
According to ASERT, some of the most common issues pertaining to smell are around products like shampoo, deodorant, laundry detergent, air fresheners, and fabric softeners.
While these types of products can smell pleasant, they also tend to have distinct cleaning product smells that can be overwhelming for some and even the smells that are intended to be pleasant and enjoyable can be particularly intense in these concentrated forms.
What a sensory-friendly event could do: As with our other examples, it’s unlikely that you will be able to 100% eliminate every potentially offensive odor from a planned event but there are basic steps you can take to address the most common challenges.
One often overlooked example is that event spaces have a tendency to use artificial scents or air fresheners.
Consciously checking in on their use and asking that they be turned off for your event can be a big difference maker! Likewise though it would likely be a little too invasive to try to ask people to use different personal hygiene products for an event, it is completely within reason to ask people to consider not wearing smell accessories like perfume or cologne to your event and that on its own can eliminate one of the worst offenders.
Common concerns: Within the wide range of potential sensory challenges around taste, many individuals follow specific diets or have strong aversion to specific tastes and textures. This aversion can be very strong and is not simply a matter of fussiness or something that goes away if a person is hungry enough.
What a sensory-friendly event could do: Two key practical steps that ASERT offers in this area are offering a variety of food options and a system for letting attendees communicate any special dietary needs they may have in advance.
The former reduces the odds that someone with special sensory needs around taste will just get unlucky and not be able to eat anything being offered, while the latter helps you better anticipate if you need to make a specific type of accommodation that you would not have otherwise planned. Because there can be such a wide variety of foods and individual taste profiles, it is crucial to try to account for some variety in the planning process.
Most crucially, it is important to create an atmosphere where a person pointing out that they simply cannot eat the food that is available is not viewed as selfish or picky or disruptive. It can be tremendously difficult to bring up this topic, and rest assured that people who have this sensory need are not doing it to be difficult or because they don’t appreciate the effort!
The fact that it might not be a big deal to some of your guests does not minimize the seriousness of the issue for people who do face sensory overload from certain types of food.
In a perfect world, we would do a perfect job of anticipating everyone’s needs and avoiding those types of challenging discussions. But knowing that we can’t always be perfect, the least we can do is create an environment where people feel comfortable expressing when their needs aren’t being met.
Common concerns: One of the most common concerns around sight sensory issues is bright lights. In particular, fluorescent bulbs can be a particularly intense experience.
As noted by ASERT, some autistic people who contend with sensory overload related to lighting will wear hats or sunglasses indoors.
What a sensory-friendly event could do: Sight sensitivity is another example of potential challenges created under allistic social norms that requires some autistic people to actively break social norms to manage the issue on their own.
While a hat or sunglasses might be a perfectly suitable solution to such a problem, those things can also be seen as socially unusual to the point that the dress codes of some events or venues may even ban them.
As with our other categories, making the effort to normalize these solutions at an event level can make a huge difference for the enjoyment of people who need these accommodations!
Someone who needs to wear sunglasses to handle fluorescent lighting almost certainly does not want to be constantly asked why they are wearing sunglasses inside, and you as the event planner can adjust your messaging to preempt a great deal of that questioning.
If possible, you can also seek to limit the offending lighting to the best of your ability. Is it practical, for example, to forego fluorescent lights entirely at this event?
If that’s not possible, is there a way to cover the lights so that they are not so intense?
If that’s not possible, can you designate a more dimly lit space as part of your quiet area safety valve?
As with our other categories, once you have a sense of your overarching goal you can decide what solutions are workable in your specific context!
While there are a variety of considerations that go into any sensory event and getting things perfect is not easy, we hope we have shown how some basic considerations when it comes to potential areas of sensory overload can make an enormous difference in how welcoming and supportive an environment can be.
Because the concept of “sensory-friendly” can cover such a wide range of events, there is no one set format to make an event sensory-friendly.
It requires careful consideration of the realities of the event in question and a firm commitment to creating that sensory-friendly environment even when the type of event you are planning might make that a bit of a challenge.
In future posts, we will be covering some of the ways you can begin planning the specifics of how your accommodations might work in practice, but in the meantime, we highly recommend ASERT’s considerations, this article on managing some of the nuts and bolts, and this article which goes beyond just sensory needs and hones in on lots of little ways your events can be more accessible.
If your sensory-friendly planning has led to some challenges or dilemmas that you are unsure of how to resolve, we’d love to hear from you and see if that question can be addressed in a future post!
Just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; otherwise, we’ll see you in part 2!