Sensory-Friendly Experiences in Boston (+ Beyond)
I’ll never forget my son’s panic when we tried to go to a Touch-a-Truck day.
This was a three-year old boy whose third word had been “truck.” And he still started each day looking out our living room window, wondering when he might see a truck pass by. He was over the moon about our plans for the day, feeling particularly hopeful that he might get to climb into a real-life excavator.
We approached the giant parking lot filled with fire trucks and big rigs. Suddenly, horns sounded from what seemed like everywhere. Loud music pumped through giant speakers and my son’s noise canceling headphones were just no match for the decibel levels.
Tears welled up in his eyes and a look of complete terror visited his face. He turned to clutch my legs, buried his face, and sobbed. We got far enough away that the sound could no longer bother him but that day we never got close enough to actually touch a truck. Kai looked at the excavators from afar, and his eyes stayed sad. But he didn’t want to leave for a while. He kept wondering aloud why noise had to be part of touching trucks. And he was so confused that hundreds of others kids could tolerate it.
In the years since, we’ve come to understand much more about Sensory Processing Disorder. Thankfully, we’ve also found that although we have to look and sometimes wait for them, the Boston area offers many opportunities for sensory-friendly childhood experiences. And Kai did eventually get to climb into an excavator, thanks to a very kind town worker who was doing some repairs on our street one day.
I thought it would be fun and helpful to put together a list of our family’s go-to resources and strategies for finding sensory-friendly activities, as well as a round-up of local spots that regularly offer events, performances, and experiences designed to include kids like mine. Also, be sure to check out these back posts on 9 Sensory Processing Disorder Resources, Tips to Soothe Sensitive Souls, and 7 Lessons Learned from Raising a Gifted Child.
General Resources/Tips For Finding Sensory-Friendly Events in Boston
1. The Boston Mamas Weekly Blueprints and Weekend Roundups!
Every week, Boston Mamas publishes weekday and weekend event roundups. These listings include sensory-friendly holiday events, theater performances, special museum days, amusement park events, and yes, even a sensory-friendly Touch-a-Truck Day. I work on curation of these roundups and am tuned to including sensory-friendly events!
2. The Special Needs Recreation Events and Programs calendar
The Special Needs Recreation Events and Programs calendar gets updated regularly. Along with events for children with visual, hearing, and other disabilities, it provides information about many sensory-friendly events, performances. Many parents also appreciate their information about accessible camps and sibling supports.
3. Always call ahead and always ask for what you need!
We’ve had great luck contacting staff at events, attractions, and performances to check in about our son’s needs. One example? Last summer Circus Smirkus was happy to seat our family early and near an exit. We knew that early seating would allow us to avoid the sensory meltdown and panic attack that waiting in a crowded line outdoors during a heat wave would have prompted. So even if an event doesn’t list a sensory-friendly date, or a museum doesn’t have special sensory-friendly hours, ask for what your child needs. Most of the time, you’ll find caring people ready to make things work.
Boston-Area Sensory-Friendly Museums
1. The Discovery Museums (Acton) hosts ASD and Sensory Friendly Afternoons each month, and even offer free admission to families who register. The Museums avoid scheduling school groups and birthday parties at those times in order to keep crowding to a minimum. They offer special sensory activities during their events and they provide a dedicated room to orient children to the campus and its programs. Finally, their special events always provide a quiet space for children who need a break.
2. The Boston Children’s Museum (Boston) offers their monthly Morningstar Program to provide children with special or medical needs and their families the opportunity to explore the Museum at a time when there are only a few other visitors. They also discount admission during these programs and have put together a sweet Social Story about visiting. My kiddos love these days with special admission - it’s so quiet and very different than trying to make this trip work during regular hours.
Boston-Area Sensory-Friendly Theater, Concerts, & Movies
Attending a movie, children’s theater performance, or live music show can be downright harrowing for those of us whose kids have special sensory needs. The volume of the audience members and the amplified sounds from speakers always seem way too loud. Our sensitive kids may also be triggered by the emotion and intensity of the actors or musicians. Even if all is well and no tears are shed, our kids often express their joy loudly and without reservation or hesitation. We may worry that our children will upset other patrons with outbursts and excitement.
Sensory-friendly performances create an environment that welcomes our kiddos. Lights don’t shine so brightly (nor do they go out completely) and speakers get turned down lower. Venues usually designate quiet, calming areas while ushers allow families to come and go as needed. And no one raises an eyebrow if a child bursts into song, joyful shouting, stimming, or tears.
1. Open Door Theater (Acton) always offers at least one sensory-friendly performance of each show that it stages. The staff are extremely accommodating and friendly at all times, but during these special performances, they provide a social story for the performance, “chill out” space, and specialized staff on hand to support families in attendance.
2. Blue Man Group (Boston) hosts an annual autism- and sensory-friendly performance. But they also make excellent accommodations on demand. Their staff has been quite sensitive and thoughtful with numerous families I know, providing earplugs, involving some kids in the show, providing seating accommodations, and more.
3. TD Garden (Boston), again and again provides a phenomenally sensitive experience for children with disabilities. From Disney on Ice performances to athletic events and concerts, families we know have had repeatedly fantastic experiences at this venue. Even at times when there wasn’t a specifically “sensory-friendly” performance underway, the staff appear to be very well trained around disability access - even for so-called “invisible” disabilities. Whether we or others have needed a seat relocation, a quiet space, or simply some extra patience, TD Garden has provided it through their guest services staff.
4. Wheelock Family Theatre (Boston) typically offers sensory-friendly performances for each show they produce. They are also always super accommodating about seating requests that families make because of a disability and we have been able to find quiet space easily during performances.
5. The American Repertory Theater (Cambridge) consistently provides sensory-friendly performances of its shows as well. The environment they create at these times is truly inclusive and welcoming. The flexibility to come in and out of the theater as necessary, as well as to feel confident that we won’t be judged for a loud reaction to events on the stage, makes it fun to attend.
6. AMC Theatres (Multiple Locations) partners with the Autism Society four times each month to offer Sensory Friendly Films on the second and fourth Tuesday and Saturday. The lights stay up and the sound stays down. Most importantly, feathers won’t get ruffled if a child gets up, dances, walks, shouts, or sings.