It’s not every day that parents can find fun and safe entertainment for their children with sensory processing difficulties. But that’s about to change.
Sesame Place, Sesame Street’s theme park located in Pennsylvania, announced this week that they are becoming the first theme park in the world to be certified as an autism center. Their staff will be trained to understand guests with special needs including sensory awareness, communication, and social skills, all before the park’s 38th season opening on April 28th.
“It’s our goal to provide every family with an enjoyable and memorable visit, and we are proud to offer specialized services to guests with autism and other special needs,” Sesame Place shared in a Facebook post.
In addition to the staff’s training, Sesame Place offers a special accessibility ride program which “is designed to allow our guests to enjoy our attractions without waiting in the full queue line if the guest is not able to do so.”
There are also two newly-renovated sensory rooms, two designated quiet spaces, low-sensory parade viewing areas, and the option to borrow noise-cancelling headphones.
And in fact, this isn’t the first time Sesame Street has been the first to represent the desires of their audience. In March of 2017, they unveiled Julia, a 4-year-old with autism, on their show. Guests of Sesame Place can also meet Julia and take pictures with her.
Children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) may struggle with any or all of the five senses, causing sensory meltdowns. To outsiders, it may appear that the child is having a tantrum, but what is really going on is the child is unable to appropriately process sensory stimuli, such as loud and unexpected noises, flashing lights, or something else. Children with autism often also have sensory processing disorder, but there are other children who have SPD and not autism.
To help address these challenges, Shannon Airport in Ireland opened a sensory room last year for children with special needs complete with dim lighting, beanbag seating, and safe climbing equipment. Overwhelmed children could move, rest, or recompose before or after traveling.
But it’s not just children who may struggle with sensory stimuli. Though 1 in every 68 children has autism spectrum disorder, adults with dementia and PTSD can also have sensory processing difficulties.
So it’s great to hear that St. Louis’ much anticipated aquarium, opening in summer 2019, announced this week that they will be the first in the world to be accredited for creating a sensory-friendly facility. The staff will receive training on recognizing sensory needs so they can best assist guests. The building will include a sensory room, and guests may borrow noise-cancelling headphones, fidget tools, weighted lap blankets, and verbal cue cards so they can have a more enjoyable visit.
As a mom of a child with SPD, I’m thrilled that facilities are creating more inclusive environments for all guests. I know exactly how stressful it can be to take my child somewhere new and stimulating and not know if there will be a safe, quiet space to regroup if a sensory meltdown happens. And often it’s not a matter of “if” a meltdown will happen, but “when.” But if there are tools and staff available to help my child before he spirals, we’d be more likely to return and enjoy the entertainment complex again and again.
Facilities like Sesame Place, Shannon Airport, and the St. Louis Aquarium are stepping up to demonstrate to these guests: You matter too. We want you here. Welcome. And I have a feeling more will follow suit.