How sensory-friendly events are bringing more inclusive experiences to Fort Wayne

Fort Wayne is often marketed as among the “best places to raise a family,” with no shortage of arts, entertainment and recreational activities. But for people with sensory processing disorders and other disabilities, these events don’t always feel welcoming. In fact, they can be isolating. Loud noises, bright lights and other elements can alienate them from what could be a family bonding or community-building experience. 
A sensory-friendly event at Promenade Park.
According to the American Medical Association
, one in six children has sensory processing difficulties In specific populations, including children with autism spectrum disorder, or who have a history of fetal alcohol syndrome, prematurity, or Down Syndrome, the prevalence of sensory processing difficulties is estimated to be as high as 80 to 100 percent.

With DEI at the forefront for many institutions, being mindful of sensory sensitives can be a means to help accommodate neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals alike. Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation has prioritized inclusive programming in recent years. One of its programs, Riverfront Fort Wayne, connects residents with the built environment and nature. 

According to Riverfront Fort Wayne Special Events Coordinator Hannah Webb, partnering with the nonprofit organization KultureCity, Riverfront Fort Wayne has produced several certified sensory-inclusive events free of charge. KultureCity works with institutions to help create a community of acceptance and inclusion for all individuals of unique abilities. Specifically, the Sensory Inclusive™ certification helps entities plan and execute events with these considerations in mind.

Sensory-friendly bags from Kulture City being handed out.Aligning with this group has been a benefit to the community at large, in her estimation. 

“Eighty percent of our Riverfront staff actually got trained to use what we call KultureCity bags,” she says. “It comes with items like sensory toys and headphones. We have stickers in the park that say, ‘This is a sensory safe area’ and stuff like that. So that was probably one of our biggest milestones so far.”

Armed with the knowledge from KultureCity, park staff made sensory bags, containing noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, weighted lap pads and verbal cue cards. These items were available to guests who might feel overwhelmed by the stimulation. 

These special events are far from passive, however. Webbs says hands-on activities encourage interaction, creativity and learning. Another takeaway from Riverfront Fort Wayne’s success has been recognizing the gamut of needs – and catering to them. 

“There's such a wide variety of sensory processing disorders,” she says. “I think that our biggest lesson has been realizing that there’s such a broad and significant community of people who need something like this. We want everyone to have a good time, not just a select group of people who can enjoy it.”

A sign at Promenade Park indicating a quiet area of the park.On that note, Webb says they have several sensory-friendly events planned for the weeks ahead at Promenade Park, such as panting with bubble wrap and playing with Floam, a type of fluffy slime.

Like Riverfront Fort Wayne, the Fort Wayne Ballet’s leadership wants to reach audiences of all ages and types. A few years ago, Director of Outreach and Ballet Mistress Tracy Tritz helped develop the organization's initial sensory-friendly programming with some help initially. She researched what other arts organizations around the country were doing with sensory-friendly programming and translated that insight into best practices. Then she looked to local examples for reference.

A family explores the sensory cards givens out by the Fort Wayne Ballet.“The Civic Theatre had already started doing sensory-friendly programs,” she says. “So they were a great help to me, and I met with them and looked at their template.”

Tritz says while there was some fine-tuning needed to translate the concepts from the medium of theatre to dance, it helped provide a foundation. Consultation with the Fort Wayne-based AWS Foundation also helped in terms of meeting accessibility requirements and executing marketing and outreach functions. 

In retrospect, Tritz says it’s been “an evolution” and her team has learned a great deal from trial and error. Today, sensory-friendly performances accommodate patrons who might be sensitive to their environment. 

“We watch our decibel level in the auditorium,” she says. “We have to make the theatre extremely accessible, so we put up extra signs to make sure that everybody knows where restrooms are and the places they can go. The places they can't go are very clearly marked with stop signs. We have a quiet area set up just in case people need some time away.”

Sensory-friendly bag given out at the Fort Wayne Ballet.The same goes for patrons who might have a hard time sitting still. They allow for the use of devices and fidget toys during the performance. Families can borrow sensory-friendly bags containing items like headphones and toys. Speaking of sounds, Tritz says they omit elements like pyrotechnics and loud or abrupt noises during these special performances. The music is programmed to be in the moderate range the whole time.

But perhaps what makes these experiences so special is not what’s missing, but what they add.

“We encourage families to come, so it doesn't just need to be the child with a particular sensory issue,” she says. “It gives the opportunity for the whole family to be able to go to the same performance together instead of maybe taking some kids to one performance and some kids to another performance.”
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Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.