Steps to Sensory Friendly

All, Stories
A group of adults participate in a craft during a sensory friendly hour at Miami Whitewater Forest Visitor Center.
Individuals enjoy making a craft during a sensory-sensitive hour during an event at Miami Whitewater Forest.

It is often the little things that we take for granted as we lead our busy lives, those day-to-day activities we can plod through without even thinking about because they seem so mundane. As I sat down to tell this story earlier today, I thought about my typical morning routine. With honking cars, bright headlights and loud alarms, I came to the realization that a morning routine would be difficult to follow for someone who has sensory sensitivities. For someone who has sensory sensitivities, processing everyday occurrences like looking at a bright phone screen, hearing a high-pitched security alarm or the feeling of cold deodorant on your arm can be extremely challenging. Anyone could experience a sensory sensitivity, but it is common in people who have autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing disorder and attention deficit disorder (ADD). 

As part of the education and events team for Great Parks, it is my challenge to create educational programming that is both engaging and inclusive for all members of the community. This can often be a tricky process; while creating programs, the little things can be overlooked in the planning process. We want to invite as many people as possible to our parks to enjoy our programs, but we realize that as our programs grow, guests who have sensory sensitivities may find attending and participating to be strenuous. So how do we tackle this issue? Well, our answer turned out to be a simple one in the end. We worked in partnership with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to create time during certain programs where we look at the little things in an attempt to provide a positive experience for guests who have sensory sensitivities. These times are referred to as sensory-sensitive hours.

From an out of this world time at Sharon Woods, to a turtle week that will bring anyone out of their shells at Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve, to an enchanting experience in a fabled forest at Miami Whitewater Forest, themed events have become an ever-popular style of programming across Great Parks of Hamilton County. On any given day, hundreds of people can come to see live animals, play games, make a craft or two and complete some hands-on science experiments. Adding sensory-sensitive hours to these events has helped hundreds of guests enjoy our educational programming in a safe and fun environment.

Nature Interpreter Susan Sumner demonstrates how the Velcro schedules work before the sensory-sensitive hour at Maple Sugar Days.

The process for creating one of these hours is not overly complicated, but is very detail-oriented. Adding these hours to already-existing programs allows us to provide guests who have sensory-sensitive needs a similar experience compared to guests who have none to minimal sensitivity needs. In the preparation for these hours, we walk through the event and create a social narrative. A social narrative is a tool designed to help guests see what activities and stations the event has in order to prepare for what may be experienced. They typically contain both images and written word and can be presented on paper or electronically. Following the creating of the social narrative, we create a schedule that guests can use when they arrive. The creation of a schedule can help some guests navigate the event in a more comfortable manner. The schedules we create give guests the ability to pick certain activities from the event and place them in the order they wish to complete them in using Velcro. The next step is to make sure all of the small things I mentioned earlier get taken care of. Some examples of this are:

  • Turning off hand dryers and providing paper towels
  • Disabling the automatic functions in certain toilets
  • Dimming the lights in an event space
  • Removing potential noise makers
  • Ensuring there are an appropriate amount of sensory-stimulating activities
  • Turning off background music
  • Ensuring an appropriate number of staff are involved
  • Creating quiet spaces for guest who need a break from the action

Finally, on the day of the sensory-sensitive hour, guests are met by greeters at the door who provide a brief overview. Guests are then left to enjoy the event at their own pace.

It is my passion to share our parks with guests through interpretation and educational programming. However, I must admit that introducing someone to Great Parks who previously has not had the opportunity to experience fully what we offer is on a higher level for me. These sensory-sensitive hours have opened the door to nature exploration and discovery for an audience who previously may not have the ability to experience our parks.

Great Parks of Hamilton County is committed to exploring new avenues of creating inclusive and accessible educational programming. For more information, call 513-521-7275, email our guest relations department or visit our calendar for more events and programs.

Will Buelsing
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest