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Tips for Accommodating Neurodiverse Attendees at Your Next Event

The Overland Park Convention Center has opened a dedicated room to help serve the one in six event attendees with sensory-processing issues. Here's how you can accommodate this often-overlooked group too.

Overland Park Convention Center's Sensory Room
The Overland Park Convention Center’s new sensory room is a dedicated space, created by medical professionals with reduced lighting and noise for guests who may feel overstimulated and need a more secure environment. It’s located at the venue’s Exhibition Hall A entrance on the upper level.
Photo: Courtesy of Overland Park Convention Center

As conversations about diversity and inclusion continue to gain traction in the event industry, one group occasionally overlooked is attendees with neurodiversity and other sensory-related issues. But in reality, about one in six individuals struggles with a sensory-related need, explains Uma Srivastava, executive director of KultureCity, a nonprofit that focuses on creating sensory accessibility and inclusion.

“And those statistics are really shifting to about one in three individuals now,” Srivastava notes. “Sensory needs are not just those with autism but individuals of all ages, all walks of life, with Down syndrome, anxiety, PTSD, dementia, Parkinson's and even a whole host of other not-so-common or rare genetic conditions.”

Since having a sensory-processing issue means your brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses, event attendees can be particularly overwhelmed by crowds along with certain sounds, smells and lighting. To address this, KultureCity offers sensory-inclusive training and certifications to help venue staffers recognize attendees with needs and handle a sensory-overload situation. To date, the nonprofit has offered training at more than 900 venues in five countries. 

One venue that recently completed the certification process is the 245,000-square-foot Overland Park Convention Center in Overland Park, Kan. “We were looking for more ways to serve those from diverse circumstances, [and] we were attracted to KultureCity’s focus on those with sensory sensitivities—[since] in our industry, sensory overload is commonplace, by design,” says Brett C. Mitchell, the center’s general manager. “As we discussed it, it became clear that every employee probably has a history of sensory sensitivity within their families or circle of friends, whether autism, PTSD, dementia or similar conditions. That made the certification personal, which makes it more effective and sustainable.” Overland Park Convention Center's Sensory RoomThe Overland Park Convention Center's sensory room offers bean bag chairs, visual light panels, bubble walls, noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, weighted lap pads and more.Photo: Courtesy of Overland Park Convention Center

After completing the certification and becoming better educated on the associated challenges, Mitchell and his team decided to work with KultureCity to take it one step further by creating an on-site, fully equipped sensory room. The dedicated space was created by KultureCity and its team of occupational speech behavioral therapists and physicians; it’s meant to be a place where event attendees who feel overstimulated can easily get away for a bit. Highlights include reduced lighting and noise, along with bean bag chairs, visual light panels, bubble walls, activity panels, noise-canceling headphones and a custom tactile art piece created by an autistic artist. 

Mitchell explains that creating a dedicated sensory room felt like the next logical step after becoming educated on the issues. “We just wanted to help provide some comfort and relief, and for [attendees] to feel confident prior to, during and after attending an event at our venue,” he says. “I think the pandemic has helped our team become more compassionate toward others, and the sensory room was the result of their compassion.”

The room is officially KultureCity’s first certified sensory room at a convention center, though the team has worked on similar rooms at other venues around the country. Srivastava explains that KultureCity’s team typically examines floor plans of a venue and designs everything off-site, then ships the items to the venues to install. “Then they've got that roadmap, so they're just not looking at a blank room saying, ‘All right, where does this go?’” she says.

The teams also work to ensure the room is easy to find and accessible to every attendee, Srivastava adds. At the Overland Park Convention Center, for example, it’s located at the venue’s Exhibition Hall A entrance on the upper level. And prior to attending an event, attendees can download the free KultureCity App to see what sensory features are available and where they can be accessed. Overland Park Convention Center's Sensory RoomThe sensory room offers activity panels and a custom tactile art piece created by an autistic artist.Photo: Courtesy of Overland Park Convention Center

For event planners and venues hoping to be more accommodating of neurodiverse individuals, Srivastava recommends shifting your focus to attendees with both visible and invisible disabilities. “Inclusion means a lot of different things for different individuals,” she says. “If you're planning an event, if you're attending an event, if you’re choosing a venue, make a point to see how inclusive that space is when it comes to neurodiversity. As a planner, look out and see if the venue has a certification.”

Srivastava adds that this is a particularly important topic as attendees emerge from the social isolation of the pandemic. “Conferences are [one of] the most chaotic environments to be in. You're meeting people who you haven't seen in several years. You typically have giant exhibit halls with vendors trying to give you all the free stuff, but you're trying to make it to sessions and keynote speakers, and it's a large footprint and it can get really overwhelming for the attendees,” she says. “One in six people has a sensory need, and we need to make sure that they get the same option and availability to enjoy an event or experience as anyone else.

To learn more about KultureCity’s sensory-inclusion certification, check out kulturecity.org or email [email protected].

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