Summer Fun for All
Beloved family attractions such as Story Land are beginning to offer sensory-friendly days for children who need quieter, calmer surroundings.
A note from New Hampshire Magazine: At press time, Story Land announced its opening date, originally May 23, was delayed. The new date is yet to be determined, but you can visit storylandnh.com/covid19 for updates. Other events, such as the Sensory Sensitive Weekends, may also change, so make sure to visit both Story Land’s website and check back here for updates and new information. The Conway Scenic Railroad has also postponed opening day, though they are taking reservations for June 1 and beyond. We’ll be doing our best to keep you informed of reopenings and schedule changes at all the attractions mentioned in this story.
A version of this story originally appeared in New Hampshire Magazine’s sister publication ParentingNH, which is an excellent resource for Granite State families.
Going to the amusement park or movies can be a lot of fun, but if you have a child on the autism spectrum, a trip out with the typical noise, sights and smells that go along with the experience can make it a not-so-fun situation for you and your child.
A number of Granite State locations are setting aside special days and weekends to accommodate parents who have children who need a “sensory-friendly” environment.
Story Land, New Hampshire’s iconic amusement park in Glen, has hosted Autism Awareness Weekends in the past in conjunction with Autism Speaks, according to Director of Marketing Lauren Hawkins. Recently they flipped the focus from awareness to accommodating those with sensory sensitivities, introducing a calming room and quiet dining area in 2018 and Sensory Sensitive Weekends a year later. Note: Story Land’s opening day is delayed. They are posting updates and more information here.
“We felt there was a need to do more for those on the autism spectrum,” says Hawkins. Like last season, they will host two Sensory Sensitive Weekends planned for June 13-14 and September 19-20.
The main difference from normal operations is a decrease in sound, from background music, the rides and in the pathways, the piano and school bell, etc., without compromising safety speeches that need to be played. There are also accommodations for ordering food more quickly, and families are allowed to pack lunches and snacks if food lines are a concern.
Going places? 10 Tips for parents of children with sensory issues
To make any excursion fun for the entire family, it helps to travel as a team. Having two adults means you can divide and conquer when one child has an issue.
- Keep in mind your children’s needs and capabilities. Your fearless firstborn may have screamed with glee on a kiddie coaster at 3, but your extra-sensitive secondborn may not be ready until 6 — or ever. Forcing children into a situation they’re not ready for or shaming them for being frightened is a recipe for disaster.
- Know everyone’s limitations. If heat or humidity cause you to break out in hives or triggers an asthma attack, have an escape plan: a seat in air conditioning. Early morning visits may be best.
- If you’re at a motel or resort, take a cooling break in the pool or a nap midday. Investigate two-day or late-day passes at amusement parks so you don’t feel pressured to do everything in one day.
- Conversely, play to your child’s strengths. If Robbie is fascinated by beads and numbers, let him play with the giant abacus at the museum as long as he likes — and capture it in a photo.
- Be prepared. Story Land’s website has a virtual tour so you can plan your visit carefully.
- If your child needs an inhaler or insulin, has allergies or gets carsick, don’t leave home without your kit, EpiPen or a change of clothes. Bring snacks in case of delays. If your son has food issues, bring something he’ll eat. We all get cranky when we’re hungry.
- Have a strategy for meltdowns. Where’s the nearest exit if Jonathan gets overtired? Can one parent continue on with the others so they don’t miss out? Coordinate meeting places.
- Avoid peak, crowded times. On its website, the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire in Dover suggests times that are less likely to be busy and offers early openings for kids with special needs. (Or head to the museum on the first Sunday of each month during the school year for its Exploring Our Way Autism Partnership Program.)
- Safety first. There’s no shame in using a harness and tether if Kimberly is prone to dashing off at high speed. According to Autism Speaks, drowning is the leading cause of wandering-related deaths for children with autism.
- Be flexible and keep it fun. Enjoy what you can as much as you can and don’t sweat the small stuff.
“We also do quiet dining areas as best we can,” Hawkins says. The quiet dining room and calming room are permanent, and the latter has air conditioning and a few toys for those who need to regroup. For parents, days such as this enable them to relax without feeling stigmatized.
“We know there is a large portion of the community that can’t necessarily get out and go to an amusement park on any given day, so we’re delighted to provide a few weekends to make Story Land more accessible and fun for them,” she adds.
Story Land recently received designation as a Certified Autism Center from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBSSES). This means that 80% of staff completed autism and sensory awareness training — how to recognize, understand and act compassionately when assisting families – and passed an exam.
While you’re in the North Country, Conway Scenic Railroad offers Sensory-Friendly Fridays at 4 p.m. on the Millie train. “It’s air-conditioned, so there are no open windows,” says Manager of Marketing and Events Susan Logan.
Railroad crossings on the approximately one-hour ride around Pudding Pond will be “hand-flagged,” minimizing use of the train’s horn. Each child gets a gift bag with quiet activities. Advanced reservations are required. Note: Conway Scenic Railroad has postponed the start of their season. Currently they are accepting reservations for June 1 and beyond. See more here.
Let’s go to the movies
“Audience members are allowed to walk around, dance, shout or sing.” The newest “Mamma Mia” installment? No, that’s what Chunky’s Cinema Pub says about its monthly showings of first-run movies for kids with sensory sensitivity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other issues.
“Once a month at all locations we show first-run movies with the lights up, the sound down slightly,” says Director Mike Manetta of Chunky’s.
“We want to create an environment where parents can see a movie with their child stress-free, with no concerns about distracting other audience members. If kids get up off their seats, it’s OK — whatever it takes for them to enjoy a movie.”
Chunky’s also offers closed-captioning (at limited locations) and sound-amplifying devices. Their menu includes gluten-free options.
Cinemagic Director of Charitable Giving Elaine Adam says their theaters have been offering special showings for a number of years, at parents’ request. Sensory-sensitive showings are offered once or twice a month in each location.
“Parents appreciate the relaxed atmosphere and that they can take all of their children there,” Adam says.
A day at the museum
The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire’s Exploring Our Way program in Dover is designed for kids on the autism spectrum and their families so they can enjoy the museum just like everyone else. It’s held once a month on a Sunday morning when the museum is quieter. Note: The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire is temporarily closed. Visit their website or follow them on Facebook for updates.