Growing number of ‘sensory-friendly’ locations in Utah aim to give safe space for children on the autism spectrum

Discovery Gateway, TopGolf and several movie theaters are among those offering services for families with kids triggered by loud noise and intrusive lighting.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ryder Motuli, 6, who is on the autism spectrum, connects with the colors and the tactical feeling of movable marbles on a light panel in the sensory room at Discovery Gateway. The children's museum has been certified as a "sensory-inclusive" space for children on the autism spectrum - by offering quiet areas and "sensory bags" with headphones, fidget toys and other ways to help kids on the spectrum cope with unfamiliar, noisy surroundings.

When the music gets loud, Lisa McNett’s son Elijah gets louder.

“If the music is too loud somewhere, he’ll find a way to cope,” McNett said about her 7-year-old son, who is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. “He’ll talk louder, or he’ll make observations.”

McNett and her husband, Will, who live in Sandy, are careful about visiting places, like museums, where there’s a danger of sensory overload.

“We try to limit ourselves to calmer places and to times when it’s not super-busy,” said McNett, a part-time fitness instructor when not caring for Elijah and his 4-year-old brother, Levi, who’s not on the spectrum. “We always have everything with us, and we have an escape plan.”

With autism diagnosed for one out of every 68 births in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the need for spaces that reduce sensory assault is growing. And many in Utah, from museums to the Utah Jazz, are answering that call.

Discovery Gateway, the Salt Lake County-operated children’s museum in downtown Salt Lake City, recently was certified “sensory-inclusive” by the nonprofit group KultureCity.

Museum staffers have identified which areas are more prone to loud traffic and which areas can be set aside and marked as quiet zones, said Laurie Hopkins, Discovery Gateway’s director. Volume levels also change throughout the day; mornings, when school kids visit on field trips, tend to be louder than afternoons.

The museum is also equipped with “sensory bags,” with gear designed to help sensitive kids get through crisis moments. The bags include noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, toys for fidgety hands and a weighted lap pad that serves as a calming tool.

Discovery Gateway offers a monthly free “sensory-inclusive” afternoon for families. The next dates are May 29 and June 26. The costs are offset by a grant from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation, Hopkins said.

The certification is recognition of the work the museum has done to be more welcoming to children with sensory issues, said Hopkins.

“We wanted to make sure we had the tools and training for our staff to provide the best experience we possibly could,” she said, “and be as inclusive as we can for that community.”

Other facilities are offering sensory-friendly events, some of them timed for World Autism Month in April.

Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the Utah Jazz, opened its sensory-friendly room March 30. It’s open on a drop-in basis during Jazz games, concerts or other events.

“The response from our guests has been very appreciative,” said Frank Zang, spokesman for the Viv. “Families feel more comfortable attending games or events knowing that if they want to take a break, they don’t need to leave the arena.”

Two attractions at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi — the Museum of Ancient Life and the Museum of Natural Curiosity — have available sensory backpacks, with headphones, fidget toys and other calming tools.

TopGolf, the recreational driving range chain with a location in Midvale, will hold a “sensory-friendly” day, 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturday, with lowered sound and lighting, and reduced distractions and crowd sizes. Reservations are recommended.

A TopGolf spokeswoman said the company is testing the idea in some markets before deciding whether to offer it regularly.

Several movie theaters routinely offer sensory-friendly screenings, with the house lights on dim and the volume on low. Regal Theaters, which has a 14-screen multiplex in Taylorsville, has such screenings from time to time. AMC Theatres — with locations in Layton, West Jordan and Provo — has sensory-friendly screenings for kids on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month for select showtimes. And the Megaplex Theatres offers sensory-friendly screenings for its summer kids’ series.

For McNett, who hasn’t taken Elijah to Discovery Gateway since his fourth birthday party but is considering a return visit, having sensory-friendly facilities and events is a benefit for all families.

“Even kids not on the spectrum have sensory overload,” she said. “To have a safe place to go and chill out is important for everybody.”

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