With big animals, squawking birds, and hollering monkeys, the Assiniboine Park Zoo can be a pretty exciting, and somewhat overstimulating, place.
For people with sensory-processing concerns, such as autism or dementia, it can be even more overwhelming.
Recognizing that, the Winnipeg zoo has become a certified sensory-inclusive facility, providing training to staff and equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones and verbal cue cards to guests to help make the experience more accessible for everyone.
The Assiniboine Park Conservancy enlisted KultureCity, an American company that's partnered with the NFL, MLB, and NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers to make small changes to allow people with any number of sensory concerns to access entertainment or life experiences.
The Canadian Occupational Therapy and Sensory Processing Disorder Network says such disorders occur when the nervous system doesn't efficiently register, orient to, modulate or integrate sensor input. It's something that can affect anyone, regardless of age, but the network cites studies showing between five and 16 per cent of typically developing school-aged children have some form of a sensory processing disorder.
The disorders can lead to anxiety, social challenges, and frustration, and can also be tied to traumatic experiences. Often, people with a sensory processing disorder are sensitive to some sort of stimulus, be it sound, touch, movement, or smell. Proper interventions and knowledge can help limit the anxiety or fear that those stimuli can create, advocates say.
It's become increasingly common for facilities to seek out ways to become more amenable to those concerns in recent years: Sobeys grocery stores, including the St. Anne's Road location, have introduced sensory-friendly shopping hours, with reduced lights and sounds; the Silver City movie theatre at St. Vital Centre offers sensory-friendly screenings on Saturdays; and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra offers "relaxed" concerts with sound-dampening headphones and an available quiet room.
At the zoo, similar interventions will be offered, officials said. Staff will be trained online in best practices to support guests with disorders, and sensory bags with headphones, fidget tools and verbal cue cards will be available, as will weighted lap pads.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.