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  • Writer's pictureCory Morrison

Autism: Sensory Friendly Places for Entertainment and My Experiences

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Places Not Always Accessible


Creating sensory friendly places is crucial for autistic people. Many want to visit their favourite amusement places without getting overwhelmed.


In a neurotypical world, however, it's not always easy for neurodivergents to fully access these places due to sensory issues.


What are examples of places that have taken the extra mile to support autistic children and what are my thoughts?


Indoor Family Entertainment Centers


We Rock The Spectrum Kids Gym


About and Features


For a longer time than what should have been, I didn't even realize We Rock The Spectrum Kids Gym, which is a play center that specifically caters to autistic children, was a thing until maybe a couple of years ago. It has 128 locations. There's even a location in Oakville, Ont.; my hometown and current residence.


Another cool fact? It's international, too (locations outside the U.S. and Canada). There are locations in Australia, Bangsar, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Soon-to-be countries to have We Rock The Spectrum include Dubai and Ireland.


We Rock The Spectrum offers the following:

  • Sensory-friendly play equipment;

  • Pre-K prep classes that include arts and crafts as well as time in the gym;

  • camp programs; and

  • birthday parties


Their motto is, "Finally a place where you never have to say 'I'm Sorry!'"


What Would This Have Been Like for Me?


Even though I especially enjoyed the jungle gym equipment that resembled the equipment in places such as McDonald's, Chuck E Cheese or Discovery Zone, I feel as if I still would've thoroughly enjoyed the gym at We Rock The Spectrum. Looking at photos of the Oakville location, my five-year-old self would've had tons of fun for hours.


Because this organization has only been around since 2010, however, it didn't exist in my childhood years.


Chuck E Cheese


Features


In numerous locations home to the famous mouse many of us know, known as Chuck E Cheese, there is Sensory Sensitive Sundays, which Chuck E Cheese launched in 2016.


The chain created this initiative when it partnered with the Center of Autism and Related Disorders.


At the start of the video on the site that advertises the program, they acknowledge that "Where a Kid Can Be a Kid!" applies to all children, including those on the spectrum and other special needs.


This, to me, is well-thought-out because if an autistic person or someone with other sensory issues is overwhelmed by too much sensory stimuli, they don't get that chance to be a kid at Chuck E Cheese.


The program includes opening two hours early on the first Sunday of each month to ensure smaller crowds, quieter experiences, dimmed lighting, trained staff to help these children, limited music and shows, and fewer mascot appearances.


My Chuck E Cheese Experience (way before SSS)


The few times I went to Chuck E Cheese, I remember playing skee-ball, riding the animatronics, eating pizza, and having fun on the SkyTubes and the ball pits but only vaguely so.


I was six and seven when I went there, though. Therefore, going there at four would've been more overwhelming for me because of the crowds and lights.


Chuck E Cheese Sensory Friendly Place
I play skee-ball at Chuck E Cheese in late 1999 (Photo credit: Nancy Fincher-Morrison)


Personal Story


In the first six years of my life, I recall going to at least several family entertainment centers with jungle gyms, toys, inflatables, arcades, mini restaurants, bowling, mini golf or even rides. With the places I went to during those times, what I remember they all had in common was that they were not particularly huge, weren't fancy and didn't have excessive lighting (or any strobe lighting).


For example, I had my third birthday party at a small dinosaur-themed indoor playground/party place in Mississauga. It was not the Dave and Buster's type of place where my preschool self would've been overwhelmed too easily. It was just a tiny play center with almost house or office-like rooms, so I wouldn't get too overwhelmed.


Similarly, in my early school years, my relatives would occasionally take us to a Chuck E Cheese knockoff place in London that existed at the time. It had everything to entertain me, but at the same time, there was no extreme lighting, nor was the place huge.


Looking back to my preschool years, I think my parents must have realized that if they took me to huge, fancy places like Playdium, Dave and Buster's or Discovery Zone, my autism would've made me feel too overwhelmed by the light, noise and crowd. Not to mention, dealing with people was hard. If a ball pit was nearly literally packed, for example, I would've thrown a fit because my impulse control was unusually poor then.


By the first or second grade, however, I overcame enough sensory issues that going to the bigger, fancier family entertainment centers was not a problem for me. In fact, I had my eighth birthday party at Planet Laser in Oakville, my 10th birthday party at Playdium in Mississauga, and an initially unplanned 12th birthday party at Dave and Buster's in Vaughan.


Movie Theatres


Cineplex Theaters


Supported by Autism Canada, Cineplex offers sensory-friendly screenings every four to six weeks on Saturday mornings for autistic people and their families.


The theatres provide more lighting and less sound in its participating locations.


Cineplex also notes the following in their FAQ:


  • Outside food is allowed if the person has special dietary needs and is particular about their meals.

  • They make sensory screenings for primarily family movies, but they’ve also been trying to provide screenings for teen and young adult movies.

  • The screenings are not just for autistic people. They're for anyone with sensory issues.

  • Guests can still use Access 2 Entertainment cards.


Landmark Cinemas


Landmark Cinemas offers Sensory Friendly Films with raised lights and lower volumes once a month at Morning Movies prices. Guests are also welcomed to bring assistive devices and outside food, change seats and speak quietly. They discourage other electronic devices to further prevent sensory issues.


SFF movies feature icons to ensure guests can spot the films easily.


What Were Movie Theatres Like for Me as a Kid?


Strangely enough, I don't recall any sensory issues when I watched movies. I was usually too into the film to focus too much on my surroundings.


The dark was fun for me every once in a while, and I was never one to be scared of anything I see or hear on the screen easily.


Adults also made sure I was careful when it came to crowds.


Museums, Aquariums and Zoos


Ripley's Aquarium


What's a standout example of an autism-friendly place in Ontario? Ripley's Aquarium is your answer.


The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) has not only appointed Ripley's Aquarium as a Certified Autism Center, it is also the only attraction in Canada to receive this honour.

Ripley's Aquarium Sensory Friendly Place
Fish at. Ripley's Aquarium (Photo credit: Jess Torre on Unsplash)

Staff went through lots of training and used the IBCCES Sensory Guide to ensure guests have lots of information on the topic.


Ripley's also provides sensory-friendly hours on a monthly basis. Their methods include more lighting, less music, and providing a quiet room.


Royal Ontario Museum


The ROM worked with Autism Ontario to determine how autistic people with sensory issues can fully enjoy their experiences. They mention the following:


  • After 2 p.m. on weekdays is the best time to go to avoid crowds.

  • For people who frequently experience vertigo, the museum lobby has a 2 per cent slope and there are sloped walls.

  • Sounds can echo or come out louder when busy.

  • Some places will always have crowds, especially the Currelly Gallery on the main floor, in which special occasions occur

  • Lighting, scents and temperatures can change throughout each gallery.

  • The Bat Cave, while fun, is super dark and can have surprising noises, which isn't ideal for some autistic people. If you suspect this may be an issue, you don't have to go there.


Toronto Zoo


Toronto's famous zoo offers many useful tools for people with sensory problems, which include:


  • A sensory map, which shows where headphone zones and quiet zones are, and

  • KultureCity sensory bags that include fidget toys, headphones, sunglasses and visual cue cards.

Also, as an inclusion partner in MagnusCards, aFREE mobile app, the zoo provides visual guides in step-to-step processes with card decks for autistic people to navigate the zoo and its activities. If you ever feel lost or don't know what to do the first time you go to a zoo without an adult, MagnusCards will know exactly what to do.


Amusement Parks


Read My Theme Park Journey: The Ride for details on what my experiences were like.


Cedar Point


The park proudly acknowledges that many people on the spectrum may enjoy rollercoasters and will want to visit the World Rollercoaster Capital free of stressors. Cedar Point offers the following:



Disney Parks


Both Disney World in Orlando, FL, and Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, offer Disability Access Service passes to avoid the traditional lines, a Strollers as Wheelchairs program to prevent wandering and sensory issues, break areas, companion restrooms, and even a guide on how people with cognitive disabilities can prepare for a trip and what to bring.


Disney World Sensory Friendly Place
Me with Donald Duck at Disney World in Orlando, FL, in April 1999 (Photo credit: Nancy Fincher-Morrison)

SeaWorld


Want a Certified Autism Center theme park? Seaworld in Orlando, FL, is a good bet as they have partnered with the IBCCES to become one.


Seaworld provides quiet rooms, noise-reducing headphones, sensory information about the park (such as between Dolphin Cove and Turtle Trek being a relatively quiet section) , and staff who are highly knowledgeable on autism.


Sesame Place


Sesame Place, like Seaworld, meets the requirements to be a CAC and offers many of the same things listed in the Seaworld section. For young children on the spectrum who adore Sesame Street, this is great news (and a great way to support Julia, the autistic character on the show).

Sesame Place Sensory Friendly Place
Me with Cookie Monster at Sesame Place in July 1997 (Photo credit: Nancy Fincher-Morrison)

In addition, they recommend autistic people with sensory issues sit near the start of the parade for limited noise exposure.


They even provide autism resources on their site, such as Autism Travel and Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.


Conclusion


It's a breath of fresh air to know that management at prominent amusement centers acknowledges that the neurotypical world isn't always designed for autistic people.


They realize that while these places can be equally as fun (sometimes even more so) for autistic people as for neurotypicals regarding the main attractions, some things could go wrong unique to an autistic person's challenges.


Thankfully, they have looked at ways to make it work.


You may also like: Exploring Autistic Burnout


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