We’ve all heard of Sensory-Friendly Performances. But do you actually know what that means in the practical sense? We do! As parents of a son on the autism spectrum and professionals who entertain at hundreds of fully-inclusive events each year for over 30 years, we’re experts in this realm.
What are Sensory-Friendly Performances? The term means that the event was designed to welcome individuals who are on the autism spectrum, have sensory sensitivities or other disabilities. Essentially, this means creating a supportive, non-judgmental environment, so all guests feel comfortable attending.
For the Parents of the Party Guest with Special Needs:
1. Feel free to request a pre-visit to the party venue (yes, even if it’s a house party) to familiarize your child with what to expect ahead of time. Does your child do better with a “seat buffer” around them, or a seat cushion to define their spot?
2. If a Performer will be entertaining at the party, why not check them out online ahead of time to reduce your child's anxiety around the new experience. It may be helpful to rehearse with your child how they will get to the party and what will happen at the party. Include a timeline for those who like to know a more detailed plan.
3. If you know your child becomes overstimulated in some environments, feel free to pack headphones (to block unwanted sounds), fidget toys, iPads, communication devices, drinks/ snacks, weighted blankets or other sensory supports.
4. The perfect time to go over behavioural expectations with your child is in the quiet, calm of home. Once you’re at the Sensory-Friendly event, just let it unfold, relax and enjoy! Remember: parties should be fun for everyone!
For the Party Host / Event Co-ordinator:
1. Sensory-Friendly Parties are really about relaxing the house rules, for example, typical convention would be remaining quiet and seated during performances. At a Sensory-Friendly Performance, guests would be welcome to clap, sing, dance or move around.
2. Conveying to the Parents of the Guest with Special-Needs that the experience is meant to be relaxed and enjoyed will allow them to not be on edge waiting to react to their child’s behaviours the entire time! Smile at the parents and their child! Let them know their child is welcome and valued throughout the event.
3. Offer a quiet room for Party Guests who need to recenter and the opportunity to take a break from the performance when necessary.
For the Entertainer / Performer:
1. Bring a Sensory-Friendly Tool Kit including noise-cancelling headphones or disposable earplugs, sensory-friendly toys for children to hold during the show and fidgets for audience members in need.
2. Talk to the Parents of the Special Needs Guest to find out which show modifications would be helpful: e.g. keeping the lights on low, avoiding flashing lights, generalized sound reduction, no sudden loud noises, but don’t make assumptions! Every person is unique, and the best way to create a Sensory-Friendly environment is to collaborate with the Event Host and the Parents around the actual needs of the Guests in attendance. Sensitivities are not universal.
3. Providing a relaxed environment for Guests with Special Needs means not calling attention to “inappropriate” behaviour, but instead giving extra leeway for standing, walking, clapping, dancing and singing.
Paula Presswood is a former teacher turned entrepreneur. She can mostly be found blogging, doing yoga, drinking tea, chasing around after her three teenagers and sampling delicious appetizers with her crazy magician husband. She is Co-founder of Presswood Entertainment and The ThoughtFull Board. Follow Paula on instagram