Boston Nonprofit Helps Hotels Become Sensory-Friendly

BOSTON—Visiting hotels, whether small or large, can be a harrowing experience for those with sensory processing disorders such as autism, dementia, ADHD and PTSD. A child with autism could have a meltdown if there’s too much happening at once, and can be triggered by situations like a crowded room, a loud TV, overpowering aromas or fluorescent lighting. Dementia sufferers could suddenly forget where they are, or leave the guestroom if left alone.

Sensory City, a nonprofit based here, offers training and kits to help hotels become sensory friendly, and awards sensory-friendly certification to those properties that complete the course.

Sensory City was founded by Tanya Acosta, a locally based speech pathologist with a child with Down syndrome (“I like to say that I’m the mother of a child with a disability by chance,” she pointed out.)

It was on a trip to Ireland with her husband where the idea for Sensory City was hatched.

“A couple of years ago, my husband and I were walking through the airport in Shannon, Ireland, and we noticed that they have a sensory room,” she said. “We said, ‘This is a little bit crazy. Little Shannon, Ireland, has a sensory room, but Logan Airport in Boston does not. So, we brought the concept back here, and we started talking to Logan Airport about that. The airport is now working with us on designs for a potential sensory room.”

Once the company was created, Acosta started focusing on hotels. Making properties sensory friendly will not only be good for guests with sensory processing disorders, but also for hoteliers.

“It’s not just kids with autism. This is people with dementia, ADHD, PTSD, epilepsy, Down syndrome and so many others,” Acosta said. “The population is large, and I think that when hoteliers start to understand the value and understand, they can sell empty rooms and fill their funnel.”

She continued, “Hoteliers can see that something good for humanity while increasing their bottom line is really possible by reaching this untapped population. A lot of families who have kids that have sensory needs are staying in Airbnbs instead of going to hotels because they don’t feel that they can properly accommodate them.”

Achieving sensory-friendly certification begins with training, either on-site or via webinar. Sensory City provides strategies for welcoming and including customers who have less visible disabilities. It also focuses on how an establishment can adapt its space in order to promote the safety, communication and comfort of guests with sensory needs.

“We also provide hotels with a list of suggestions after an analysis of what they can do to make their hotel more sensory friendly, whether its putting pads at the bottom of squeaky chairs; allowing a family to request a room away from the elevator; or equipping the room with blackout shades and a fridge—because many families travel with medication,” noted Acosta. “A sensory-friendly room should have no glassware that can be broken or a lamp that can be tossed over. So, we offer very simple suggestions that may require simple modifications.”

The second part is having sensory and safety kits. The former contains things like noise-canceling headphones, weighted blankets, eye masks, fidget toys and communication boards.

“If [sensory-challenged] guests need a towel or shampoo, but can’t express themselves verbally, they can take out the card at the front desk and point to it and ask for certain items,” said Acosta. “The boards also facilitate communication with those who don’t speak English, along with those who are hard of hearing or may have had a stroke or aphasia and just have trouble getting their words out.”

The safety kits offer items like outlet covers, a fidget bead ice pack and door alarm “so that if your loved one is a safety risk or flight risk,” said Acosta, “you can have a little motion sensor on your door.”

The idea for the door alarm likely came from a trip to Costa Rica Acosta took with her mother.

“My mom had Alzheimer’s,” she said. “Every morning, she’d wake up and be like, ‘Oh, it’s such a beautiful day. Where are we?’ and I’d say, ‘We’re in Costa Rica.’ It was like Groundhog Day. The fourth day, I woke up and she wasn’t there. She had gone out at I don’t know what time, and I found her at the pool. I was lucky that she remembered how to swim and that she had all her clothes on.”

Kalahari Resorts & Conventions Sandusky, OH, is the first sensory-friendly-certified resort in the Midwest. Brian Shanle, the resort and water park’s general manager, as well as a father of five with a child on the autism spectrum, said his property staff went through training where “employees were given fresh insight into how to help accommodate adults, youth and children with less visible disabilities ranging from autism and ADHD to PTSD and dementia.”

He continued, “We also built a sensory room to soothe and comfort guests should they experience sensory overload. Inside, there’s cozy seating, gel wall tiles, dim lighting and soothing music, among other features. Our resort chefs, in addition to their professional training on food allergies, are also trained to assist guests with food-related sensory issues.”

Shanle has received encouraging feedback from both staff members and guests, noting, “Following the training sessions, I was surprised how many associates told me later that they never understood why some of their family members, coworkers and our guests behaved the way they did. Through this inclusive training, they developed an enlightened perspective and a newfound respect and understanding of those with invisible disabilities. Feedback from guests also has been very positive.”