Author: AD Gladu
– Key Contributors: AD Gladu, Amanda Yates, April Neal, Diane Porthouse Lochner, Emily Howard, Melissa Rivera Torres, Josh Rodriguez, Steffaney Martin, Tiffany Rawson
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder & Sensory Processing Disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others.¹ Individuals with ASD may avoid eye contact, be overwhelmed by crowds, persistently repeat words or phrases, display repetitive behaviors such as flapping or rocking, prefer routine, enjoy focused interests, excel in academics, or—like environmental activist Gretta Thunberg—start a revolution! It truly is a spectrum.
One widely recognized aspect of ASD is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a condition that includes people both over and under sensitive to what they see and hear.² In 2016, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found the prevalence of ASD in eight-year-olds to be 1 in 54.³ As many as 90% of individuals with ASD also have SPD, which may impede their ability to integrate information from multiple senses at once, rendering our industry’s coveted immersive experiences undesirable.
CROWDS, LINES, & SURPRISES – NO THANKS!
Imagine if every sound is level 10 and every sight is in-your-face. Now stand in a tight line of keyed-up strangers as lights flash, music blares, and dancing characters magically appear. These theme park staples easily become overstimulating stressors for senses that yearn for calm.
Day in Disarray
For some, schedules bring comfort. Thus, when a planned event, like a favorite show, is canceled or a ride needs repair, or the coolest snake is hiding under a rock, disappointment is keenly—even crushingly—felt.
Complex Directions in a Stimulating Environment
Stepping on the moving platform, getting in the vehicle, and pulling down the bar while a colorful character sings the ride’s exposition is A LOT to throw at anyone, especially a person with SPD. The result may be frustration and confusion on how to play the attraction’s game—or even the realization that there IS a game.
Opportunities for Improvement
Awareness of the vast neurodiversity among individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder is giving rise to a richer expression of Design Empathy, the practice of putting oneself in the guests’ shoes. A great first step may be asking questions like:
- What aspects of ASD and SPD are most affected by the design elements in my attraction/destination?
- Where on my property can I create joyful environments tempered with comfort and serenity?
- How can I educate and empower my team to swiftly assess a situation and assist guests with compassion and understanding?
The second step in Design Empathy is often finding people who can help you answer these questions.
- Professionals – Consulting companies such as KultureCity can work with your team to create Sensory Inclusive Environments.
- Community – Organizations such as Easter Seals, UCP, The Arc, and Special Olympics have local chapters that specialize in offering services to people with special needs. Why not give your local experts a call and ask their opinions?
- Family – Does someone on staff have a child, sibling or friend with ASD? Ask them for an introduction and spend time walking your park with a real expert. Let them teach you!
Want to learn more about designing for other cognitive disorders? Check out the links below for more information.
- Mayo Clinic – https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352928
- Spectrum News – https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/talking-sense-what-sensory-processing-disorder-says-about-autism/#:~:text=Children%20with%20SPD%20tend%20to,problems%20are%20characteristic%20of%20autism.
- Centers for Disease Control – https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/ss/ss6904a1.htm?s_cid=ss6904a1_w
Autism Speaks – https://www.autismspeaks.org/signs-autism
Kulture City – https://www.kulturecity.org/
Easter Seals – https://www.easterseals.com/
UCP – https://www.ucp.org
The Arc – https://thearc.org/
Special Olympics – https://www.specialolympics.org/