Sensory-Friendly Experiences in Massachusetts
Happily, opportunities for sensory-friendly childhood experiences keep increasing in the Boston area. These kinds of programs were so important to my own family when my son was younger. And they continue to be critical for many others we know now.
For that reason, I thought it would be fun and helpful to update our roundup of venues that regularly offer events, performances, and programming designed to include kids who need a calmer, quieter experience. And if you need help understanding more about a child’s sensory needs, you might take a peek at these 9 Sensory Processing Disorder Resources.
Curated Event Lists to Bookmark
MAK (Moms of Amazing Kids) offers regular listings for sensory-friendly family programming, plus you’ll also find lots of listings for moms to get together, build community, and support one another.
Special Needs Recreation Events and Programs provides its own calendar list, plus information about accessible camps and sibling support.
1. The Discovery Museum (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.
3. The New England Aquarium (Boston) provides sensory inclusive access at set times for a quieter experience with all your favorite marine animals. Designed specifically for those with special sensory processing needs, these events use soft lighting, limit the use of microphones, and implement other modifications to ensure a comfortable environment. They also loan out sensory bags, which include fidget items, noise-canceling headphones, and other resources.
4. The Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) now offers periodic Sensory-Friendly Playdates. Enjoy story time and gallery exploration, followed by art making in a quieter, low-lit gallery.
5. Check out Sensory Sundays at the Children's Museum at Holyoke (Holyoke). For sensory-sensitive visitors, the main museum space will have a more calming environment for sensitive children to engage and explore. For sensory-seekers, Learn in Motion’s Chris & Hope Gibaldi are on hand to guide children through a specially crafted sensory obstacle course.
Theaters + Concerts
Attending a cultural event 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 performers. Even if all is well and no tears are shed, our kids often express their joy loudly and without reservation. 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.
6. 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.
7. Boston Symphony Orchestra (Boston) began offering Sensory-Friendly Concerts in 2019. And in December 2019, the BSO performs its first ever Holiday Pops Sensory-Friendly Concert. This will be a shortened 60-minute version of the regular Holiday Pops concert, with a flexible, non-judgmental environment. Modifications will include relaxed house rules, reduced volume and lighting levels, extra space for movement, available noise-reduction headphones, designated quiet room and support spaces, modified food concessions, and credentialed autism therapist volunteers on site.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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 a quiet space easily during performances.
11. 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.
12. AMC Theatres (Various Locations) partners with the Autism Society to offer Sensory Friendly Films on the second and fourth Tuesday and Saturday every month. The lights stay up and the sound stays down. Plus, feathers won’t get ruffled if a child gets up, dances, walks, shouts, or sings.
13. Regal Theaters (Various Locations) offers My Way Matinee at 10:30 am on the second and fourth Saturday of the month for a special discounted ticket price.
14. Showcase Cinemas (Various Locations) host a sensory friendly movie on the first Saturday of each month at 10 am.
Movement + Adventure
15. Altitude Trampoline Park (Billerica) offers regular sensory-friendly mornings on Saturdays.
16. SkyZone Trampoline Park (Boston) provides a quieter jumping experience on a monthly basis.
17. Urban Air Adventure Park (Bellingham) hosts a Sensory Friendly Jump on Sunday mornings.
18. Brooklyn Boulders (Somerville) supports Adaptive Climbing for people with a variety of needs every Sunday afternoon.
19. Zoo New England (Boston, Stoneham) has partnered with KultureCity to proactively assist guests with sensory sensitivities throughout their visit by offering quiet zones, noise canceling headphones, fidget tools and verbal cue cards.
Beyond this list, always call ahead and always ask for what you need! We’ve had great success letting staff at events, attractions, and performances know about our son’s needs and asking what they can do to help us. Circus Smirkus has always been happy to seat our family early and near an exit. Canobie Lake offers bracelets for families who need a quieter, shorter waiting experience for rides. And Storyland offers a variety of accessibility supports, as well as sensory-friendly weekends.
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.