Neighborhood festivals, Fourth of July fireworks and outdoor concerts are all part of the fun of getting out and enjoying summer in Philly with your family.
But for children on the autism spectrum and those who have sensory processing disorder, the noise, smells, crowds and overall chaos present in these settings can trigger “flight or fight” response — leading to anxiety, distress and even meltdowns. Not a fun summer outing in my book.
With careful planning and awareness of your child’s triggers and tolerance for sensory stimulation, there are many wonderful, fun, sensory-friendly places to enjoy in our area. My son George, 12, has autism and can get easily over-stimulated in very loud, crowded spaces.
So we’ve found lots of ways to avoid sensory overwhelm and still enjoy family time around the area.
Here are some of our favorite strategies for finding sensory-friendly places.
Go to “Sensory-Friendly” days at the museums
Did you know that the Please Touch Museum, Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences all have regular times when families can come before the museum is open to the public? Lights are natural and the loud sounds are turned off. We have started to visit other museums with my son for short periods of time, too. He likes the Philadelphia Museum of Art a lot.
Pro tip: Art-reach’s Access program allows families who have medical assistance (available to children with disabilities) to get museum admission at 20 local arts and culture venues for just $2. That way you don’t feel like the money for admission was wasted if your child can only tolerate being in the museum for a short time
Delve into the quiet of nature
We all struggle to balance screen time in my home, and my son is especially reliant on his iPad for entertainment. So we like to regularly unplug and go out on weekends to enjoy being in nature. We especially like taking long walks in the Wissahickon and taking our dog to walk around Valley Green. When my son was younger, we also loved going to see the trains at the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill.
Come early, leave promptly
We’ve discovered that going places early before the crowds arrive is another way to enjoy places that might be prohibitive for my son at busier times. We had a blast when we checked out Spruce Street Harbor Park one Sunday morning when it was easy to find a hammock to swing on, lots of large Legos to build with and there were no lines at the food trucks. We’ve hit restaurants in the late afternoon between lunch and dinner when service is faster and there’s less noise and stimulation than during regular meal time.
As my son gets older and has more experiences in new and different settings, he is less anxious about it and more open to trying new experiences, and Philadelphia in the summer is full of new experiences.
I’d love to hear the kinds of sensory-friendly experiences that you’ve found for your child. Please share in the comments below.