20% of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence (DCEG, 2022).
That’s 1.5 billion people on Earth. One-in-five that enter your themed attraction.
Statistically at least one member of your family. We believe that every themed attraction should be designed with them in mind, as well as the 80% of ‘neuro-typicals’. Below we cover the basics, challenges and potential solutions for themed attractions.
Neurodiversity describes the variation in the human experience of the world, in school, at work, and through social relationships. Driven by both genetic and environmental factors, neurodivergent conditions include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC).
Each individual has a different sensory need in neurodiversity. Some may avoid sensory overstimulation, others may seek it out. Those that love the sense of movement, for example, will run straight towards the spinning rides of a theme park, but may need accommodations around noise. The below diagram illustrates these senses that we all possess.
For visitor attraction operators, it may be overwhelming to know that there isn’t a one-solution-fits-all approach. Everyone is unique so guests having the autonomy to choose their own accommodations, makes for a greater experience.
Sensory overload cannot be just distressing, it can be physically painful for someone with a sensory processing disorder. This is just one of a number of challenges faced on a daily basis.
While symptoms and experiences are unique, there are similarities of the challenges faced by those that are neurodiverse. The below diagram showcases common challenges for Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, Dyslexia, ADHD, Tourettes and Autism.
It’s also worth remembering that even neuro-typical guests to visitor attractions will have some sort of sensory challenges too. Theme parks and indoor entertainment venues are, by design, ambient and popular (that’s what makes them so magical). They are also most likely to include:
Overlapping noises music from different areas
Large crowds in tight spaces
Flashing bright lights
Strong scents such as cleaning solutions, cooking food
Certain textures (this may vary from person to person)
Spinning and challenges to balance
Loud sudden noises
Too many contrasting patterns in a small space
Being touched unexpectedly
Unpredictability of performance timings
Expected to maintain eye contact
But simply turning the background music low, or reducing the amount of guests, isn’t going to solve an ‘overstimulated’ experience. As the diagram reinforces below, sensory needs are multi-faceted and unique to the individual.
The National Autistic Society has created a video called Too Much Information, to show others the experience of an autistic child in an overstimulated environment. It is a sobering experience to watch and listen to.
At Katapult, we get it
Read the views of our Concept Designer, Sarah-Anne.
I‘m neurodiverse myself – I have ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder. For me and others like me, themed entertainment can be a wonder yet it can also be a worry. While I love stepping into the worlds of my favourite characters and IPs, I can also find it incredibly overwhelming and really struggle in these unfamiliar environments.One of my main sensory triggers is around overlapping noise. My brain finds it intensely difficult to filter out unnecessary sounds and instead attempts to focus on and process everything in earshot all at once. This can be exhausting, incredibly stressful, confusing and even painful for me. I think you can all imagine how difficult of an environment a busy theme park could be for me without any accommodations. Without my noise cancelling headphones and access to quiet areas and sensory friendly cool down spaces, I would often have a complete sensory meltdown. These usually took the form of panic attacks, an experience which would somewhat sour my experience of the attraction. Before I really understood why I found these environments so difficult I would often push myself to get on with things and make it through. Even after my diagnosis I was often too embarrassed to ask for help and accommodations. When I did pluck up the courage, I was often met with confused faces and shrugging shoulders, partly because I didn’t fit their idea of what a neurodiverse individual looked like (a 30-year-old woman), and partly because they had no suitable accommodations to offer. I know I’m not alone in this experience.Working in themed entertainment I knew this just was not good enough, which is why I’m delighted to be part of these conversations about designing for neurodiversity. I think it’s incredibly important to include ‘own voices’ perspectives within your design processes. As the saying goes, “nothing about us without us!“
From our Creative Director, Andy Sinclair-Harris.
Themed attractions and experiences, at their heart, are there to provide joy to everyone and that is the key; everyone. As an industry, we will see and need to see substantial changes in how experiences can adapt for different abilities. Neurodiversity is wonderful. My son is autistic and by really understanding and seeing the world through his lens, it has completely opened my eyes to how important inclusivity is. Every design that we work on here at Katapult is created with a complete 360 degree view. Accessibility, both in a physical and neurodiverse capacity has to be a priority. On a personal level, I want my son to be able to enjoy and experience the joys a theme park can truly bring. This means adapting the space surrounding him and filtering this, especially on a sensory level. In the words of author Alexander Den Heijer, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”
As we’ve mentioned, there isn’t a one-solution-fits-all, but visitor attractions can implement multiple accommodations to allow guests to pick and choose as their needs arise. Starting with entering the attraction entrance.
Entering the attraction
Neurodiverse individuals often feel a sense of anxiety if they don’t have all the context and information they need before visiting. Consider sharing event schedules and operating times, as well as accessibility FAQs. A sensory-friendly map is also a brilliant idea, to help guests find quiet zones, toilets and sensory accommodation easily. This can even be provided as a video walk-through, allowing guests to prepare themselves and be calmer on arrival.
Sensory trigger warnings
Provide a detailed description of a ride’s sensory experience for neurodiverse and disabled guests. Knowing about sudden loud noises or water spray, for example, gives autonomy back to the guest so they can make the best decision for themselves.
Staff training on accessibility measures, such as the sunflower lanyard (although this is used to signify all hidden disabilities, not just neurodiversity) can be incredibly helpful. These lanyards and other signifiers, can alert staff members to offer the available accommodations for neurodiverse guests.
Having dedicated, bookable quiet spaces and rooms for neurodiverse guests to decompress in a safe space is incredibly valuable. This could be a bespoke room with seating, calming colors and sensory/fidget toys and items such as sensory swings and weighted lap pads available. This could also be a sensory garden with a zen zone.
Accidents happen, things get lost or broken. This may be a slight inconvenience for some but for a neurodiverse individual, something like a lost pair of ear defenders/ear plugs or a lost sensory toy can ruin a day. Having the option to rent sensory equipment packs could be a life line.
Neuro-friendly time slots and events
Creating a sensory friendly environment is just as much about what isn’t included as what is included. Scheduling more toned down showings or events and marketing them clearly as neurodiverse friendly (e.g. softer lighting, lower volume, less fog, etc) allows everyone the opportunity to experience your great show or attraction.
We design themed attractions and experiences around the world. From large-scale theme park projects, to small family entertainment centres, we pride ourselves on creating experiences that guests love. To find out more about us, including the contributors to this article Sarah-Anne, Robbie and Andy, get in touch with us today.