Dorian Newton, 6, talks to Santa Claus during a low-sensory Santa experience at The Battery Atlanta in early December. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Venues offer programs, tools for kids with autism or sensory disorders

Debbie Newton wants her son, Dorian, to experience everything life has to offer — just like any other child.

Movies. Plays. Children’s concerts. Even a visit with Santa.

Those simple activities, though, can be challenging for parents of children with autism.

Dorian, 6, was diagnosed with autism about six months ago. Two of Newton’s other three children are suspected of having high-functioning autism.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t tend to go as many places because if the noise is too loud, he can’t handle it,” she said.

More and more, attractions and theaters around metro Atlanta are working to provide opportunities for children with autism to participate in their activities.

Dorian has sensory processing disorder, so he becomes overstimulated with too much noise, bright lights or activity.

That means music in a restaurant or public place can be overwhelming. Even going to the bathroom can be a trigger. The sound of several toilets flushing at once or high-speed hand dryers can have a negative effect.

“He starts to have a meltdown where he can’t function,” Newton said. “Sometimes, he really struggles.”

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So, Newton tries to find alternative forms of entertainment such as fishing. Or she hangs out with other families of children with disabilities so she doesn’t have to endure the looks of disapproval and whispers when he’s having a meltdown.

Today, though, there are more options.

More venues and organizations are adding low-sensory performances and programs for families like the Newtons.

Recently, Dorian was able to spend time with a low-sensory Santa during a special event at The Battery Atlanta, adjacent to SunTrust Park.

“It went really well,” said Newton. “I just cried my eyes out. This was his very first time going.”

“We’re able to rejoin society again,” she said.

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Krista Massey, the senior vice president for marketing activation and engagement for SunTrust Bank, said the low-sensory Santa was held when there was less activity at The Battery Atlanta, and they took special steps to make it more friendly for children with autism or who are on the spectrum, including lowering the light and noise level.

“We wanted to create a calm setting,” she said. “We wanted the children to be in a space that was more comfortable instead of being possibly overwhelmed.” Even Santa was trained to handle special situations.

For the events, there were more than 72 bookings. There are free low-sensory Santa sessions from 10 a.m.-noon Dec. 16 at The Battery Atlanta: They are all booked, but you can go to eventbrite.com to get on a waitlist.

Next year, they may add more dates.

Related: An early Christmas for children with autism and their families

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to Autism Speaks, a nonprofit that provides advocacy and support for individuals with autism and their families, and raises awareness about the disorder. Most signs usually appear by age 2 or 3, but some associated developmental delays can be spotted earlier.

Many people with autism also have sensory issues, including aversions to certain sights, sounds and other sensations.

To accommodate visitors with sensory needs, Zoo Atlanta offers sensory bags, available to borrow at no charge. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A new survey released last month estimates that 1 in 40 children have autism spectrum disorder, according to a study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. That’s higher than a previous Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that put that number closer to 1 in 59.

It’s not just The Battery Atlanta taking note.

The Georgia Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta and other venues are offering special events or special tools for children with autism.

Zoo Atlanta, for instance, has partnered with KultureCity to accommodate visitors with sensory needs. Among the measures are staff training and quiet and headphones zones.

The zoo also offers sensory bags and weighted lap pads to borrow at no cost. The sensory bags include special KCVIP badges, fidget tools and noise-canceling headphones. Weighted items have been shown to have a calming effect on children with autism.

Anthony Ribera, vice president of guest experience and hospitality at the Georgia Aquarium, said the facility is open early in the morning for guests who have autism “to come in and enjoy the aquarium with fewer distractions.”

Ribera said they created a quiet room and offer the use of sensory bags that help people with autism deal with certain aspects of the venue that might become triggers. The bags include noise-canceling headphones and special glasses that help dim the lights. There are also weighted blankets available.

A family attends Autism Awareness Day at the Georgia Aquarium. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The aquarium also has trained about 80 percent of its front-line staff on how to help children with autism. “We want to make sure all our guests who come to the Georgia Aquarium have an educational experience as well as an enjoyable one,” he said. “If someone is left out and can’t engage in the facility the way we intended, then we need to improve. Hopefully, we can have an impact.”

Laura Cole, director of educational training for Atlanta Shakespeare Company at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, has been offering special matinees of “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol” for children with autism for several years.

“Well, without trying to misappropriate a powerful word, a lot of theater companies have became ‘woke’ to how their art is perceived by children or adults with sensory issues,” she said. “There is a slow-growing understanding that people on the spectrum didn’t come to see our shows because of the expectations of sitting quietly and enjoying a performance, which can be basically impossible.“

During these special performances, children can move around, and there is a quiet room, if necessary. The shows are shorter, and there are no darkened doorways or loud sounds. Before the play begins, children can walk around to get comfortable with the venue, and actors come out and gently describe their characters and what they can expect.

There are also minor changes in the script. For instance, the Spirit of Christmas Past doesn’t yell at Scrooge, and there are no slamming doors.

“We want everyone to enjoy this performance,” she said.

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