If you ask any mama navigating the tricky path of parenting a child with extra challenges (especially when those challenges are invisible to bystanders), she will probably tell you that family outings can be difficult.
I know for myself, it was hard, y’all. Like hard hard.
I pretty much never left the house if an outing required me to be out in polite society by myself with the kids. That must sound so odd if you haven’t been in a similar situation.
For my child, and most other children with autism or sensory processing disorders, the lights and sounds and crowds could make a simple trip to Target turn into a completely traumatic experience for all involved. When your big-for-his-age four-year-old reaches the end of his ability to cope with an environment, the results are a total meltdown with a crowd of onlookers not-so-silently judging the scene unfolding near the check-out line.
Mamas living life on the spectrum will be very practiced at ignoring the whispers or the eye rolls or the ever-so-helpful advice to just spank that defiance right out of him. The pros will even have a great response ready. I was never very good at confrontation but I could usually make it to the parking lot before crying my eyes out.
I will never forget the day I realized it wouldn’t be possible for us to do “normal” family activities because it was too much for my sweet kid to handle.
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since my child was diagnosed with autism. Both as a family and as a community. There are more and more businesses who are recognizing the challenges people with sensory processing disorders can face. They are stepping up to do what they can to provide some opportunities for a sensory-friendly environment.
Here are a few examples of what you can find around town!
Sensory Friendly Activities in and around Atlanta
Zoo Atlanta partnered with KultureCity to become an official certified Atlanta experience equipped to support guests with sensory needs. Sensory bags, equipped with noise canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and other resources, are now available to all guests at the Member Services Office just outside the Zoo entrance. Weighted lap pads will also be available to visitors at the Zoo train station in KIDZone and at the World of Wild Theater presented by Georgia Natural Gas. Both the sensory bags and the lap pads are available to borrow, free of charge, with presentation of an ID. Also, Zoo grounds now include three Quiet Areas and six Headphone Zones, marked with signage and identifiable on the Zoo Atlanta map. Prior to their visit, guests may download a social story via the KultureCity All Inclusive App. Check out Zoo Atlanta’s website for more details.
Children’s Museum of Atlanta
The first Sunday of every month, the museum dedicates their early session (Session A) to families with children on the autism spectrum or children with sensory processing disorders. Sensory Friendly Sundays include a sensory modified setting, limited admission, and adjustments of sound and lighting. The museum has even created a social story to prepare your little ones for the visit. Admission is $15.95 per person for non-members and free for members. For more information, visit Children’s Museum of Atlanta’s website.
Center for Puppetry Arts
The Center for Puppetry Arts offers sensory-friendly experiences to guests with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Guests are welcomed by staff members who have been trained in interactions with patrons with ASD. Performance alterations include theater lights dimmed down but not out, consistent sound levels and lower volume of show soundtrack, freedom for children to talk and to leave their seat if necessary, a quiet zone in the lobby, and permission to bring quiet, contained snacks and beverages. Create-A-Puppet Workshop classrooms will be brighter, quieter, and feature less-messy puppet building materials and slightly simplified puppet designs. This modified programming also extends to include their expanded Museum, where lighting will be adjusted and specialized educational activities (such as touch tables and guided storytelling) will be integrated. Fidget toys and sound-reducing headphones will also be available. For more information, performance dates, and to download a social story, please visit the Center’s website.
AMC has partnered with the Autism Society to offer sensory-friendly movie showings. The lights are turned up, and the sound is turned down. Guests are free to get up, dance, walk, shout or sing. The Sensory Friendly Film program is available on the second and fourth Saturdays (family-friendly) and Wednesday evenings (mature audiences) of every month. Please check AMC Theater’s home on the web for local listings for specific showtimes.
There are many other businesses who offer sensory-friendly events or hours occasionally. Certain Target locations offer special hours and modifications during the Christmas shopping season. LEGOland has offered a sensory-friendly night. The Georgia Symphony Orchestra has offered special performance times with accommodations for those on the spectrum. SkyZone has occasional sensory-friendly jump sessions. Georgia Aquarium has offered special Saturday programming for students with autism. If you know of some not listed, please comment below! Let’s help each other find welcoming environments for our families.
The best way to expand opportunities for sensory-friendly hours is to ask. Check in with your favorite businesses or activities. They may be in the planning stages already or this might be a great idea for them to pursue!
Until then, hang in there mamas. And remember, if you happen upon a family having a hard time, be kind. Try not to judge the situation because you just never know what the real story is. You can never go wrong with kindness.