Sensory-friendly experiences becoming more common in Calgary

Bright flashing multicoloured lights, booming holiday music, firewood burning in a hearth — the holiday season is truly a feast for the senses. But that's exactly the problem for those who are more sensitive to stimulus and may feel overwhelmed by the markers of the season.

That's why more businesses, organizations and events are offering what is called sensory-friendly or sensory-relaxed experiences.

"Sensory-friendly activities are activities that have a decreased sensory component to them," says Trisha Williams, a pediatric occupational therapist and the owner of Spring Occupational Therapy.

"When you think about our five senses … in a sensory-friendly or sensory-relaxed environment, those things are lessened and the environment changes."

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She says that can include reducing noise, dimming lights or trying to lessen strong smells.

Williams says that how we respond to stimulus is directly related to the wiring in our brain, and that situations that could be handled by some are unbearable to others.

Adults and children who have autism spectrum disorders, learning disorders or high anxiety, even mothers with small babies, or people who have dementia — all can all benefit from these events.

"There is a whole slew of people out there whose bodies and brains don't interpret sensory information in the same way that you or I might," says Williams.

"Typically, we see children here at the clinic with autism. They are kind of the primary movers and shakers of this wave, you could say, of sensory-friendly events.

Sensory-friendly in the city

Several holiday-themed events in Calgary are turning down the stimulus while keeping the cheer alive.

New this year at the popular Calgary Zoolights are Sensory Sundays, from 5 to 6 p.m., open to the public but altered for those who need it.

Noticeably different is that there is no music playing, and any of the lights that move just shine instead.

The popular attraction Lover's Lane is also turned off during that hour, and there is a calm room — full of blankets, cushions and dim lighting — for guests who are overwhelmed to take a pause. In addition to this, the zoo offers sensory friendly kits, and in the Enmax Conservatory, tucked in among the foliage is a quiet space to meet Santa.

"[We] really got focused on it this year by reaching out to our community partners who live in the space of sensory sensitivities and said what could we do to create a very unique experience that would be inclusive," says Alison Archambault with the Calgary Zoo.

Supplied by Trish Williams

Shauna Visser has attended Zoolights during Sensory Sundays and says this was one of the first events where she could take her son, Caiden Phillips, who is eight years old and has non-verbal autism.

"The overload of the people and the sounds and everything is overwhelming, and this is actually the first time I've been able to enjoy Zoolights along with him because we haven't been so overwhelmed with everything," says Visser.

"I don't want to get emotional, but when we are able to do things as a family that sometimes you don't get to and you miss out on, it's pretty special."

Supplied by the Calgary Zoo

Relaxed Santa events are also popular in Calgary this year.

They are usually categorized by taking place in a quiet setting with no lines, no flashing lights and no expectations of the children.

Beyond the holidays

It's not just during December that these events exist in the city.

Inside Out Theatre's Good Host Program is dedicated to making theatre, music and other arts events in the city more accessible to the city's diverse audience.

Riki Entz, who identifies as autistic and as having multiple disabilities, is a relaxed performance consultant with the Good Host Program. She helps to create a mandate for their relaxed performances.

"The demand is definitely there," says Entz.

Entz says it is important to collaborate with those in the affected community when creating these events.

She'll watch shows, making careful notes on things that could be altered before passing those recommendations along to the theatre productions.

 A little can go a long way, she says — for instance, not having a strict rule of staying in one's seat, or letting some audibly react to a show, rather than trying to remain quiet the whole time.

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Other neighbourhood staples like grocery stores are also adjusting in response to the demand for these types of services.

Many Safeway and Sobeys locations across Canada offer sensory-friendly shopping hours on Mondays between 7 and 9 p.m.

Lights are dimmed more than 50 per cent, no carts are to be moved and the staff use walkie-talkies instead of the PA system to communicate.

"The initial reaction is usually … 'Well, is the power out, what's going on?'" says Kyle Atherton, who works at Safeway's Montgomery location.

"But once you kind of explain … [customers] are generally very understanding. The community feedback has been overwhelmingly positive to this initiative."

He says some customers shop exclusively during those hours, regardless of their sensitivities, as they are just seeking a bit more peace and quiet.

"In a way, all of us benefit," says Williams.