Children on the autism spectrum are often sensitive to bright lights and loud noises. That's why some of Philadelphia’s popular cultural attractions are accommodating guests on the autism spectrum by adopting sensory-friendly policies and programming.
Children on the autism spectrum are often sensitive to bright lights and loud noises. They also tend to find it difficult to remain still or quiet. This is why for a majority of families with a child on the autism spectrum, going out to a restaurant is an overwhelming and daunting proposition. Let alone having to go to a cultural attraction, such as a museum or an art gallery.
Now, some of Philadelphia’s most popular cultural attractions are accommodating children and adults on the autism spectrum by adopting sensory-friendly policies and programming. These offerings have been placed thanks to Roger Ideishi, program director of occupational therapy at Temple University. Ideishi is an arts advocate who continuously works to build meaningful learning experiences and opportunities for children with various sensory and cognitive disabilities, as well as for their families.
Some of the area’s venues that have recently expanded their sensory-friendly policies and programming include:
- The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University — The Academy is now opening its doors exclusively to autistic children and their families. For various Saturday or Sunday mornings per year, children with autism will have the opportunity to explore the museum in a secure and comfortable setting.
For these occasions and any other day, visual and easy-to-follow museum stories will be available. The museum stories describe the Academy’s exhibits from a child’s perspective, thereby helping to prepare and plan for the visits ahead of time. Some of the stories come in two versions, or levels. Level 1 is designed for younger children or children with low-functioning autism; while level 2 is designed for older children or children with high-functioning autism.
- The Brandywine River Museum of Art – Three times a year, the Brandywine River Museum of Art hosts free sensory-friendly Saturdays. Registered families with members on the autism spectrum or with sensory sensitivities have the opportunity to receive pre-visit social stories and to enjoy hands-on activities. They can also check out the free sensory-friendly museum packs, which contain noise-cancelling headphones, fidgets, and more. These packs are created in collaboration with occupational therapists and local families and they are designed to create an enjoyable experience.
- Adventure Aquarium – Family Inclusive Special Hours, or F.I.S.H., are designed for the special needs community to visit the aquarium in a comfortable setting. The lights are adjusted and the sound levels are accommodated especially for the children and their families. F.I.S.H. events are offered to the community at a reduced rate. Apart from reduced sensory input, the events also feature sensory guides to assist in navigation, as well as resources from local businesses for the families.
- The Penn Museum – On chosen Saturday mornings, the Penn Museum opens its doors early to teenagers and young adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities. Titled ‘Archaeology in the A.M.’, the events include multisensory activities, such as ancient games, craft stations, music-making, and more. The Penn Museum also offers a sensory-friendly map that highlights spaces in the museum that are less crowded, quiet, and dimly lit.
- The Please Touch Museum – The Please Touch Museum in West Fairmount Park has introduced a new program called ‘Play Without Boundaries’. The program allows children on the autism spectrum or with sensory sensitivities to explore the museum before it is open to the public. ‘Play Without Boundaries’ features a quiet space of the day with quiet kit sensory toys, full access to museum exhibit spaces, as well as creative art activities.
- The Philadelphia Zoo – The Philadelphia Zoo has partnered with the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to create KidZooU. A hands-on and child-centric exhibit, KidZooU offers an enriching experience for children on the autism spectrum or with sensory sensitivities. “Behind every exhibit is the concept of play with a purpose. Doing leads to caring. Everything we do here gives kids a chance to roll up their sleeves and get actively involved with helping animals. They connect with animals, they care for animals and they practice how to make the world a better place for animals” said Kristen Waldron, the zoo’s director of conservation education. A dedicated quiet space is located near the entrance of KidZooU, with gate access and park benches for relaxing.
- The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts - The Center is offering its very first Broadway Philadelphia sensory-friendly production of Dr. Seuss’s ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’. Sensory-friendly kits, designated quiet areas, relaxed house rules, as well as trained staff members will be available to all of the audience members. The production will take place at the Merriam Theater, from December 19th until December 29th 2018.
- The Pennsylvania Ballet - The Pennsylvania Ballet will be showing its sensory-friendly production of ‘The Nutcracker’ for families with children on the autism spectrum or with sensory sensitivities. The event will adjust sound and lighting levels, as well as relax its house rules – allowing free movement and expression among its audience members. The production will take place at the Academy of Music, on December 27th 2018.
- The Philadelphia Orchestra – The Philadelphia Orchestra’s ‘Sound All Around’ is a fun and interactive ensemble concert that brings together young children, members of the orchestra, and award-winning storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston. Each concert introduces audience members to the string, brass, woodwind or percussion family. During this 2018-2019 season, sensory-friendly concerts will be held for children on the autism spectrum or with sensory sensitivities and their families to enjoy. Upcoming concerts will take place at the Academy of Music ballroom on March 2nd and April 6th 2019.