Over the last several years, arts presenters have been using many terms including Sensory Friendly, Autism Friendly, Relaxed Family to describe performances they hope are suitable for individuals with sensory sensitivities.
To effectively reach this diverse and unique audience, standardized terminology is extremely important. And the term Sensory Inclusive Programs is the one being adopted by the experts who are working in this field.
What is it?
A Sensory Inclusive Programs is a theatre production that is modified for individuals with sensory needs. It is one that is designed to welcome all patrons – those with and without disabilities – into a supportive, judgement free environment through physical and cultural modifications.
It is important to recognize that Sensory Inclusive Programs are not segregated performances for individuals solely with sensory sensitivities or autism. These are inclusive performances that embrace the concepts of Universal Design with the ultimate goal of creating a shared experience for an audience, regardless of one’s abilities.
Some venues have great aspirations about building a Sensory Inclusive series that their community will welcome and support. But here’s a word of caution: good intentions aren’t enough. The “Field of Dreams” philosophy – “If you build it, they will come – typically isn’t enough. Why? The answer requires examination, but it mainly comes down to one simple word, TRUST.
If your disability community doesn’t know you, how can they trust you? Too often we hear horror stories about how families in the disability community have been disappointed by organizations that have good intentions but haven’t done the work. Trust is easily broken and tough to earn. Trust takes time. Your community first needs to know that you care.
To build up trust, you need to be introduced and invested in the community you want to serve. Visit some organizations that serve people with disabilities. Look for opportunities to make connections. Most importantly, listen to their voices. Before you expect them to show up, make sure you are heading out.
Sensory Inclusive Programs would be considered cultural entrepreneurship (rather than social entrepreneurship).
Social entrepreneurs focus on changing markets and solving problems by disrupting existing markets and systems. Cultural entrepreneurs focus primarily on reimagining social roles and motivating new behaviors by disrupting beliefsystems – in this case, belief systems about disability.
Cultural Entrepreneurs often work with and in popular culture to reach the widest possible audience. It is the difference between changing markets and systems and changing hearts and minds.
Offering Sensory Inclusive Programs plays an important role in reimagining social roles and motivating new behaviors by disrupting belief systems – in this case, that people with disabilities are not interested in the arts…or are incapable of being involved in society…or do not enjoy theatre or music or dance.
We recognize that shifting behavior doesn’t happen overnight. It happens through the accumulation of exposure to new ideas from many sources. It is social change through community-driven engagement. And that’s where performing arts venues across the country have an important role to play.
What can you do?
When you produce or present a Sensory Inclusive Programs, there are some thing you can do to make the experience less stressful and more enjoyable for your audience.
Quiet Spaces do not need to be a big undertaking or extravagant. This is simply a designated area where people can take a break from the event if they need to. It should be quiet, dimly light, and out of sight of other patrons – so the lobby is not an appropriate place for a quiet space.
It’s nice to have an uncluttered place for a parent or care giver to sit with their child, maybe with access to sensory or fidget toys, coloring books, paper, crayons – or any type of relaxing activity.
When you make this space available, it is important that all of your ushers and staff know where it is and the easiest way to get there. Marking it on a visual map and signage can be very helpful.
Fidgets are something that parents and care givers may bring with them to a performance but having a few of them available is a good idea. These are small items to help satisfy the sensory needs of someone who requires extra input to adapt in a social setting.
Typically, these squishy things can be squeezed, pulled, or stretched. There are sensory toys for all five senses and they are not expensive.
If you are going to offer these types of shows, maybe having a supply of them on hand is a good idea. They are easy to find online and can typically be purchased from any store that has autism supplies.
One of the most effective ways to help individuals with sensory sensitivities and their families is to provide a social story or narrative. These are very easy to put together and can be made available on your website as a downloadable PDF weeks before the event. These can be especially helpful for people with autism who find routine or a schedule to be a very important coping strategy. Preparing them to deviate from their routine can help them more easily make the adjustment and feel less out-of-control.
What is a social story? It’s a simple way of providing information about what they can expect when they come to an event. Leaving no detail as a surprise will help them make the adjustment in their routine.
If you are able to offer an open house prior to your sensory inclusive event, this provides an opportunity for families to visit and explore your space and answer any questions before show day.
You can download a Social Story template here.
Finally, let’s talk about the value of experts. If you live in a university city or town that has an Occupational Therapy or Communications Disorder program, reach out to them and see if any of their faculty or graduate students would be willing to partner with you as a consultant. Many graduate students are looking for real-world situations and faculty are interested in unique fieldwork experiences for their students. These individuals are experts on things like Quiet Spaces, sensory activities, and what kind of fidgets are best.
You can also reach out to organizations in your community that work regularly with individuals with disabilities and their families/caregivers.