Did you know that in 2018, Summit County was the first county in Ohio to declare itself Autism Friendly? At several levels, the county shows dedication in working to be supportive of those with Autism, particularly by being more mindful of accommodating special sensory needs. As part of Summit County, there are several downtown and downtown-adjacent venues that are committed to sensory inclusivity, as well.
This is important work. Contrary to what may be popular belief from a neurotypical perspective, roughly one in six people lives with a sensory need or invisible disability, whether they have Autism Spectrum Disorder, early-onset dementia, PTSD, or are recovering from a stroke. This means there’s a good chance you or someone you know could benefit from institutions and public places implementing inclusive practices and accommodations for those with sensory processing needs.
If you are an Autistic individual with sensory needs or know somebody who is, read on. This guide is meant to be a running list of downtown venues that are sensory friendly—for kids and adults alike.
KultureCity is a national nonprofit that trains staff at various venues and certifies them as Sensory Friendly. Their organization is run entirely by volunteers and was founded by parents of children with Autism who wanted to fight not only for Autism awareness, but acceptance.
ASGA’s mission is to create connections, empowering everyone in the Autism community with the resources needed to live fully. Through their Autism Friendly Communities program, they provide training in the greater Akron area to create communities that embrace neurodiversity and encourage the recognition and respect of neurological differences, with the goal of reducing and eliminating discrimination faced by Autistic individuals and their families.
If you’re interested in making your workplace an Autism Friendly Community or would like to learn more about resources, events, social groups, and other services provided by ASGA for people of all ages, visit autismakron.org.
Above: Snow leopards bathing each other at the Akron Zoo (Photo: Shane Wynn)
In 2017, the Akron Zoo launched their sensory inclusion program and was the second zoo in the country and the first in Ohio to be certified by KultureCity. As part of the program, the zoo offers a ton of accommodations to make for a pleasant experience both for children and adults with sensory needs, starting with continual staff training and a downloadable social story that shows guests what to expect during their visit, and including the following resources:
First, sensory bags, which are commonly found at venues certified by KultureCity, contain noise-canceling headphones, fidget items, and other resources, and are available to borrow at no cost in the zoo’s Welcome Center, as are weighted lap pads.
They have four designated Quiet Areas throughout the park, where visitors can cool down after becoming overstimulated, and similarly, they’ve designated eight park areas that are particularly noisy or overstimulating as Headphone Zones, with signs that suggest the noise-canceling headphones provided in the sensory bags might be useful.
Near the penguin habitat, the zoo has a Guest Comfort Station, which is a place visitors can go for a few minutes of privacy.
Finally, they offer several dates throughout the year on which they hold Zoothing Hour, a time when the zoo opens an hour early so those who have trouble with noise and crowds can enjoy the park before it opens to the public.
To learn more about sensory inclusion at the Akron Zoo, visit akronzoo.org.
Above: A featured display at the Main Branch library about boats and waters (Photo: Shane Wynn)
Akron-Summit County Public Library
Since they both received certification through KultureCity, the Akron-Summit County Public Library has implemented many of the same accommodations the zoo has for individuals with Autism and other sensory processing needs. Every staff member at every branch has undergone training to understand how to identify and support Autistic individuals and promote a sensory inclusive environment.
At the circulation desk of every branch of the library, including the Main Branch, sensory bags and weighted lap pads are available at no cost—they’ll just need to hold onto your library card or other ID while you’re using them. All library branches also have designated Quiet Zones in low-traffic areas.
Like the Akron Zoo, each branch of the library has a downloadable social story, as well, to help visitors anticipate what a visit to the library will be like.
Above: Interior of the Akron Children's Museum
Akron Children’s Museum
The Akron Children’s Museum opened in 2016 and is a gathering space for children and families where play inspires exploration, discovery, and problem-solving. The museum houses nearly 20 interactive exhibits for kids to learn and play.
To make sure their exhibits are inclusive to all visitors, they work closely with the Summit County Developmental Disabilities Board and have partnered with KultureCity to ensure sensory friendliness. Like the library and zoo, Akron Children’s Museum also offers sensory bags and weighted lap pads at their front desk and has downloadable social stories to help guests anticipate their visit to the museum.
Above: Cleveland Clinic Akron General
Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital
With much time and energy given to making sure Autistic children receive the support they need, Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital has made a commitment to ensuring the same level of care and mindfulness with adults. Working with ASGA, 650 employees trained to identify a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder and learn how to adapt their approaches with patients to generate better medical outcomes.
Some of the hospital’s accommodations include using tablets and picture charts that ease communication between patients and doctors, having sensory friendly materials in care areas, moving patients with Autism into exam rooms quickly—without sitting in waiting rooms too long—and treating patients with Autism in rooms farther away from noisy work areas.
Akron General is the first hospital in Akron and one of the first adult hospitals in the nation to be designated an Autism Friendly Hospital. Learn more here.
Above: Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad's North Pole Adventure (Photo: Brenda Long)
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (CVSR) has partnered with ASGA in the past to offer a special North Pole Adventure experience for those with sensory processing needs. A train car prepared specially for the families on the ride, along with crafts, activities, and the ability to turn off lights and sound made for a fun, fantastic, sensory friendly holiday adventure. This partnership between CVSR and ASGA was part of the Autism Friendly Communities initiative.
North Pole Adventure ticket sales begin in the fall, with rides leaving from the Akron Northside Station. Visit cvsr.org to learn more.
Above: Mushrooms on a mossy log at one of the Metro Parks (Photo: Summit Metro Parks)
Summit Metro Parks
Summit Metro Parks sustainably manages 15,000 acres of land in Summit County and boasts 150 miles of trails. They have options for enjoying nature at every skill and fitness level and are committed to celebrating neurodiversity. In 2018, Summit Metro Parks was the first facility in the county to complete ASGA’s training program, through which 70 staff members were educated on how to recognize characteristics of Autism and how to be the most accommodating and supportive.
Although it may not be downtown, the F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm is run by Summit Metro Parks and is a great place for families who live with Autism to visit. Ahead of time, be sure to download Social Story: My Visit to the Nature Realm Visitors Center, which is full of photos that detail exactly what visitors can expect from the time they see the entrance sign to their journey back to the parking lot after a hike. They also have downloadable scavenger hunts for families to complete during their visit—one for mammals, and one for birds that might be seen along the trails.