At the Aquarium
Sensory Kits Help Make the
Aquarium More Inclusive
For guests with sensory processing disorders or people with autism that might have sensory symptoms, the sights, sounds, and smells at the Aquarium—from the din of conversation to the vocalizing of penguins or food cooking in the cafe—could be overwhelming. A “sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses” according to WebMD.
To be sensory-inclusive, the New England Aquarium offers kits with headphones, fidgets, and “feelings and needs” cards to aid guests with sensory processing disorders in feeling more comfortable and communicating what they need. There’s even a weighted lap pad available for use, which might benefit some guests by providing extra sensory input, particularly while watching a movie at the Simons Theatre or a presentation in the Marine Mammal Center.
“Often, guests come in with their own packs, but if they don’t, the cards we have might show faces that aren’t all smiling, for example,” said Meghan-Elizabeth Foster, a senior educator in the Conservation Learning department at the Aquarium. The cards, if shown, help staff ask the right questions, such as “Are you feeling sad or is there something you need? Do you need headphones? Do you need a fidget? Do you need a break? They’ve been used for non-verbal communication,” she said.
The kits come as part of a long-standing partnership between the Aquarium and KultureCity, an organization that works to “create sensory accessibility and inclusion for those with invisible disabilities.” This partnership was a first of its kind for KultureCity and an aquarium at the time. All onsite staff are trained and certified in sensory processing disorders and must complete periodic training as KultureCity updates training modules. For additional support, said Foster, “the Aquarium has two different social stories guests can access.”
A social story is a narrative that illustrates different scenarios and challenges and offers ways that people might deal with them. Using the KultureCity app, visitors can search for the New England Aquarium and view pictures along with text to help prepare them for their visit, Foster explains.
The New England Aquarium is also affiliated with MagnusCards, a free app designed to support autistic and neurodiverse people, that guests can download to view a different version of our social story.
In addition to the kits and social stories, there are designated spaces where visitors seeking a quiet space can take a break, including the lower level of the West Wing or the first aid room, which is available to guests in need of a private space. The sensory kits are free of charge at the help desk, which anyone can access by providing an ID.
“We just want people to know there are resources available for people who need it,” Foster said.
The Aquarium is proud to be certified as a trained and trusted advocate for those with sensory needs by KultureCity. Learn more about our commitment to accessibility.