What might seem like a simple, fun trip to the museum for some families can be overwhelming for others. That’s because, for individuals with autism, sensory processing disorder or sensory-affecting disabilities, the array of sensory input and crowds can be overstimulating — especially while on vacation in an unfamiliar setting.
Luckily, Denver’s museums, attractions and art organizations are setting out to help ensure families from all walks of life are able to experience the city’s enriching exhibits and performances.
They are doing so by creating low-sensory or sensory-friendly events or exhibits — in which ambient sounds are lowered, lighting is adjusted and staff are trained to help make sensory-sensitive guests feel welcome and comfortable. (Please check with the institutions first as the policies may have changed due to COVID-19.)
This parallels a national movement toward inclusivity of autistic and sensory-challenged individuals at museums and venues. In fact, many Denver institutions receive guidance on modified programming from American Alliance of Museums or through partnerships with organizations such as the Autism Society of Colorado, which runs an Opening Doors program to advocate for inclusive cultural experiences.
Sensory-friendly events are usually scheduled before or after normal operating hours and attendance is sometimes capped to keep crowds down. The gatherings allow guests to visit attractions alongside other families with similar experiences, creating a setting where no one bats an eye at vocalizations or self-stimulatory behaviors (rocking or hand-flapping) that can be characteristics of autism, for instance. The events are often free, so if a family needs to leave early, it is at no great expense.
The experiences can be incredibly positive for attendees, particularly if they’ve felt defeated with visits to museums or shows in the past. Denver Museum of Nature and Science program coordinator Treloar Bower recalls an instance at a recent low-sensory evening in which a non-verbal 10-year-old girl explored the museum with her family.
“She was so pleased,” Bower says. “She came back to the information table and curled up in my lap. And I understood that was her way of showing her appreciation. That was very gratifying.”
Check out the following round-up of organizations that offer sensory-sensitive events, exhibits or performances in Denver.
Museums and Attractions
The Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus works hard to make sure its beloved play-and-learn exhibits are accessible to all types of children. A permanent exhibit called The Nest is designed to be sensory-friendly with acoustic buffers and a pod swing that provides deep pressure and vestibular stimulation. Low-sensory mornings are also offered six times a year on select Saturdays. Lighting is adjusted, noise levels are reduced and attendance is limited. The museum recently launched a low-sensory workshop program, too, starting with a cooking session, with educators trained in sensory-friendly facilitation and a curriculum designed to be flexible for various cognitive and sensory needs. For neuro-diverse children, often preparation can be the key to a smooth museum visit, so the Children’s Museum makes a How We Play guide available on their website. Museum schedule boards, noise-canceling headphones and weighted vests are also available on site.
Low-sensory mornings are free; reservations required (email SarahM@cmdenver.org).
DMNS schedules free, quarterly sensory-friendly events, during which guests can come after hours to enjoy the museum collections and often special exhibitions. The museum has been known to go to lengths to modify exhibits for its low-sensory events, consulting families and experts on best practices for low-sensory experiences. At check-in, they offer wiggle seats, noise-reducing headphones, fidget tools and weighted lap pads.
Sensory-friendly events are free; RSVP required.
Denver Art Museum regularly holds low-sensory mornings. These quiet, sensory-sensitive events take place on Saturday mornings before public hours. Gallery sounds are lowered, attendance is limited and programming includes special tours, art-making projects and tactile tables (hands-on stations). More information is available on their low-sensory events page.
General admission costs; registration required.
Stories of Colorado’s colorful past come to life for sensory-sensitive visitors during the museum’s low-sensory mornings on select Saturday mornings. During this time, the museum is closed to the public, attendance limited and sounds in the exhibits are lowered. Find more information here.
Low-sensory mornings are free; RSVP required.
On the second Sunday of every month at 8:30 a.m., the Downtown Aquarium engineers a calmer, quieter environment for guests to take in the sea creature and animal exhibits, turning down ambient sounds and turning up the lighting.
Exhibit entry purchase is required.
Denver Botanic Gardens sets aside a few mornings during the summer for low-sensory experiences among the lush blooms and greenery. This therapeutic horticulture program is designed to provide a quiet, uncrowded experience for individuals and families. More info is available on their summer low-sensory mornings page.
Low-sensory mornings are free; registration required.
Each year in June, the Denver Zoo invites children with autism, sensory disorders and other special needs and their families to Dreamnight. It is specifically designed for all abilities and those who require a lower sensory experience, with inclusive activities, small crowds and sensory awareness.
By invitation only.
Sensory Friendly Playtime at the Wow! Children’s Museum in nearby Lafayette happens every two or three months. The museum limits attendance, turns down sound and lights, and provides adaptive equipment such as noise-reducing headphones and weighted vests. An occupational or art therapist is sometimes on hand, too, to help facilitate low-sensory activities. The museum will soon have a sensory-friendly exhibit, opening June 30, 2018. Forest of Light will be welcoming to those with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorders and will replicate a dark and quiet forest where children use sight and touch to explore the environment.
Sensory Friendly Playtime events are free; registration required.
Music and Performing Arts
During special sensory-friendly Colorado Symphony performances, audience members do not need to worry about sitting still or keeping quiet, and they can come and go if need be. Relaxed rules in the performance space mean that all responses to the music — singing, vocalizing, moving, dancing, etc. — are welcome. Lights in the audience are kept higher so audience members can see one another and the show is mitigated for sudden, loud sounds. Free fidget tools and earplugs are available. Additionally, a modified refund policy allows families to receive 100 percent of their money back if they purchase tickets and find they are unable to attend the day of the performance. Find more info on their sensory-friendly performances page.
Ticket prices vary.
Swallow Hill Music
Swallow Hill occasionally hosts sensory-friendly concerts, typically in the folk or singer-songwriter genres, that are specifically designed for individuals with sensory sensitivities and developmental disabilities. The lights are turned up and the sound down so guests can walk around, dance and sing along in a fun, judgment-free environment. Pictures of the venue online can help children visualize their visit ahead of time.
Ticket prices vary; children 18 and under are free.
Musicals, choral performances, holiday concerts and dance shows that can often feel out of reach for families with disabled members are all accessible at the Lone Tree Arts Center, thanks to their extensive calendar of sensory-friendly shows. Performers modify their shows to ensure there are no startling noises or visually over-stimulating components. More information is available on their dedicated sensory-friendly page.
Ticket prices vary.
Check the Arvada Center for the Arts & Humanities’ calendar for periodic sensory-friendly showings of their plays and other performances.
Ticket prices vary.
Colorado Conservatory of Dance's Sensory-Friendly 'Nutcracker'
Each year, the Colorado Conservatory of Dance presents a special version of the traditional, family-friendly holiday favorite, "The Nutcracker," for people with sensory needs. Sound levels are adjusted, house lights will be up, guests are encouraged to bring manipulative tools and to stand up and take breaks, and audience size is reduced. Check their performances page.
The movie theater can be an especially difficult place to visit for those with autism, sensory challenges and other disabilities. AMC’s Sensory Friendly Films series lets families come to the latest movie releases, but in a theater where the lights are up, the sounds are down and guests can move about and make noise as they see fit.