'Sensory-friendly' kits coming to local event centers

A weekend in Fort Wayne may offer families the chance to cheer on the Tincaps at Parkview Field, take in the spectacle of a Broadway touring company at the Embassy Theatre, or wind up eating nachos at the Coliseum as giant trucks crush and crawl over each other.

But for someone with a sensory challenge, like autism or a traumatic brain injury, loud noises and bright lights can make it challenging or uncomfortable to attend events with their friends and family.

Now, local events are going to be a bit more comfortable for attendees of all abilities, as these venues are the first to receive “sensory-friendly” kits for guests to borrow.

During March, which is designated as Disabilities Awareness Month, the AWS Foundation is celebrating its 10th anniversary by giving gifts to the community.

The grant-making organization is distributing these “sensory-friendly” kits to several event venues in Fort Wayne, so every individual and family can experience the programs, performances, and activities that northeast Indiana has to offer.

“Families go to special events, and think it will be OK,” says Patti Hays, CEO of AWS Foundation. “I had one family tell me that within five to 10 minutes, they could know whether they could stay (at an event) or had to go home.”

AWS Foundation Sensory Friendly Kit contents.

The sensory-friendly kits will have items like noise-cancelling headphones, a weighted neck wrap, and fidget toys.

Additionally, each bag contains a set of picture cards, showing cartoon faces expressing emotions (like “scared” or “sad”) and needs (like “bathroom” or “hungry”).

Non-verbal children and adults can use the cards to help other people understand them, too.

The bag also holds a wristband, so the person’s information and contact can be found in case he or she gets separated from the group.

Having access to these items can make everyone’s experience at large venues more enjoyable and comfortable.

Hays discovered the idea for sensory-friendly kits online, modifying similar concepts from other places.

“It just looked like something we could use,” Hays says. “It’s one of those great ideas that lets families experience things together. One of those ideas that is so simple, you think, ‘Why haven’t we done this already?’”

For 10 years, the AWS Foundation has been teaching people how to “think differently about disabilities.”

The underlying message in all that AWS does is to offer an opportunity for everyone to be included in community life. Whether the situation is education, employment, or enjoying an event, AWS wants to make it easier to include people with different strengths and challenges.

As part of its year-long 10th anniversary celebration, AWS also donated 10 Buddy Benches to northeast Indiana schools. These brightly painted benches welcome children of all abilities who are feeling left out or lonely.

Students learn that if someone is sitting on the bench, it’s a sign and an invitation to fellow students that someone would like to be included.

“This bench isn’t just about helping the children who are lonely,” Hays says. “Where we can help children demonstrate compassion, the whole class benefits. That’s the success.”

Attend the Disabilities Expo

Those interested in learning more about resources for people with disabilities are encouraged to attend the free Disabilities Expo on May 12 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.

Read more articles by Rebecca LaRue Karcher.

Rebecca LaRue Karcher has worked in media, public relations, and local government for more than 25 years in Fort Wayne. Her undergraduate degree in Journalism is from the University of Kansas. She also has a master’s in Organizational Leadership from Indiana Tech. Currently, she is serving as director of Communication and Community Engagement at Trinity English Lutheran Church. She has one son, who is in graduate school. In her spare time, she practices yoga (but not enough) and acts in community theatre whenever she gets the chance. Neither her husband, Rich, nor herself is from Fort Wayne, but they love their friends and the opportunities here.

Signup for Email Alerts