Sensory-Friendly Holiday Guide

Blog: Sensory Friendly Holiday 2023

Bright, twinkling lights. Crowded shopping malls. Noisy gatherings. Scratchy special occasion clothing. The holiday season can be challenging for individuals with sensory processing disorders and their families.

The good news? With each passing year, retailers, mall operators, fashion designers and performing arts venues are catching on to the needs of individuals with sensory sensitivities. This year’s sensory-friendly offerings are more prevalent than ever. We’ve compiled a list of sensory-friendly holiday experiences that may be available in your hometown or city.

1. Sensory-friendly shopping
Walmart, America’s largest retailer, announced recently that every one of its stores will have sensory friendly hours from 8 a.m.-10 a.m. every single day from now on. The decision came after the company offered sensory-friendly shopping hours on Saturdays during back-to-school shopping season that were extremely well-received by customers. During sensory-friendly hours, the store will dim overhead lights, turn off radios and change TV walls to static images. “During these hours, we hope our customers and associates will find the stores to be a little easier on the eyes and ears,” the company said in a press release. “These changes are thanks to those who shared their feedback on how their stores could help them feel like they belong.”

Target has also announced sensory friendly shopping hours for the holidays but so far, the policy is limited to a couple of the chain’s Ohio and Alabama locations. Stay tuned for announcements of more sensory friendly hours at Target and other retailers.

2. Sensory-friendly Santa events
This month, you’ll find Santa Cares events and photo opportunities at malls across the country. The events, offered in partnership with Autism Speaks, take place outside of normal shopping hours and feature reduced crowds and wait times, low lights and music volumes and Santas and staff members trained to understand the needs of individuals with disabilities.

3. Sensory-friendly entertainment
These days, sensory friendly entertainment has become par for the course. At holiday time, you can find lots of seasonally inspired options. For example, the legendary Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes offered an autism-friendly performance on Nov. 19. According to the theater development fund’s website, the show featured “slight adjustments to lighting and sound” and a break area staffed by specialists. Prior to the show, audience members were able to download an event narrative with photos of the theatre and the production. Visit the Rockettes website for other disability-friendly performances.

4. Sensory-friendly zoos and museums
During the holiday season, zoos such as the Bronx Zoo, the Columbus Zoo and the Southwick Zoo are providing sensory-friendly experiences and holiday light shows. Museums including the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum in Buffalo, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh currently offer sensory friendly hours and/or special programming for visitors on the autism spectrum all year round.

5. Sensory friendly worship
Religious organizations are increasingly aware of the need to make congregants with family members on the autism spectrum feel more welcome at services. Check out organizations like the Autism Faith Network, New Jersey Special Needs Connection, Arise Special Needs Ministry,  Muhsen, and the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to find lists of autism-friendly religious services in your area. Congregations are adding services for members with disabilities all the time, so visit the websites of local houses of worship regularly to see what’s new.