How Can Zoos, Aquariums and Attractions Incorporate Sensory Inclusion to Welcome All?

Authored by: Megan Nielsen Hegstad, AIA, NCARB, Team Leader, Senior Architect

Lady leaning over exhibit to demonstrate something to boyImagine for a moment navigating a world that wasn’t built for your senses or needs, one that overwhelms you and demands you compensate, change, or mask  your basic needs to experience what’s around you. Now imagine a world that lets you be you, engage in ways that reinvigorate you rather than draining your energy, and is designed to let you go at your pace and in your own way. Which world would you choose to live in?

As an architect, zoo designer, and parent of a neurodivergent teen, sensory inclusion is a topic that’s important to me both professionally and personally. Accommodations for neurodivergent individuals should be an integral part of every zoo, aquarium and attraction‘s strategic and exhibit planning for the benefit of guests of all ages, as well as for employees and volunteers. In 2020, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) affirmed its commitment to inclusion when its board of directors adopted a fifth promise for AZA’s Strategic Plan focused on Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion. It states: “We will advance diversity, equity, access, and inclusion practices in the profession and integrate these as values into our organizational cultures.” As a member of the AZA Annual Conference Program Committee, I helped craft the 2022 annual conference agenda and advocated to include this important topic. During the conference I moderated the neurodiverse panel comprised of experts on neurodiversity and sensory inclusion, including neurodivergent professionals who spoke powerfully from their own experience.

As the industry moves toward more inclusive practices, it’s important for all of us to understand why sensory inclusion is important, who it affects, and how architects and designers can incorporate best practices for physical design, guest programming and accommodations, as well as staff and volunteer considerations, to create sensory inclusive destinations.

What is Sensory Inclusion?

Aquarium worker explaining something to a boy at an exhibit.Sensory inclusion means designing environments and programs to best serve guests and staff with sensory or processing needs. Sensory inclusion considers individuals across a range of needs, including sensory seeking, sensory sensitive, sensory avoidant, and low sensory registration. To be considered a sensory-inclusive experience, multiple sets of needs and responses must be considered and accommodated at each stage, from design to education programming.

Who is Impacted by Sensory Needs?

When we hear about sensory needs, many people think of autism. In 2018, a CDC study found that one in every 44 8-year-olds was autistic. In boys, the number was one in every 27. Autistic individuals are just one group impacted by sensory needs—other groups of people are also affected by sensory needs, including those with PTSD, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, concussions and TBI, strokes, hearing and vision loss, epilepsy, dyslexia, and others. Considered together, this data reveals that most visitor groups and nearly all staff teams include at least one person impacted by sensory needs. To ensure guest and staff sensory needs are met, organizations should create an environment that allows for community engagement, flexibility and collaborative solutions.