Nov 3, 2023 - Things to Do

Sensory-friendly activities on the rise in San Antonio

Animated illustration of a light dimmer switch with static noise behind it, which goes away when the dimmer moves down.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Sensory-friendly activities in San Antonio are helping families enjoy common experiences with loved ones who have autism or other special needs.

Why it matters: Autism has long been stigmatized. Now, a growing number of companies and organizations are accommodating people with special sensory needs.

  • "We've seen personally the difference of how people are open to neurodiversity … 10 or 15 years ago, people were not ready to have this conversation," San Antonio-based Adriana Crostley, outreach director at the Autism Society of Texas, tells Axios.

By the numbers: About 1 in 36 children nationally has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, per the CDC. The actual figure could be higher because of the difficulties of getting a diagnosis.

  • The Autism Society of Texas estimates there are "well over 500,000 people" with autism in the state.

Reality check: Sensory-friendly activities, which reduce stimuli and sensory overload, can also help veterans and families with dogs that are sensitive to loud noises.

Details: Crostley's church, University Methodist Church in San Antonio, offers a weekly disability-inclusive service and Sunday school for children with special needs.

  • She says the programming has made a big difference for her teenage son, who is autistic, and for her family.

Zoom in: The DoSeum offers Beyond Limits programming. Modifications include smaller crowds, free accessories like sunglasses, headphones and earplugs, assistive signs and specialized staff. The children's museum recently hosted a sensory-friendly Halloween event.

  • This year, the San Antonio Zoo became a certified sensory-inclusive zoo, a process that included training staff. The zoo now has quiet zones and offers noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools and more.
  • The Spurs opened a sensory-friendly room at the Frost Bank Center in 2019. It's among a growing number of sports facilities that offer such rooms, including Arlington's Globe Life Field and Houston's NRG Stadium.
  • AMC and Alamo Drafthouse offer sensory-friendly movie times when the lights stay on and people can walk around.
  • Most Walmart stores have started offering sensory-friendly shopping hours on Saturdays with dim lights and static images on TVs.

The big picture: KultureCity, a national nonprofit focused on sensory accessibility, lists 10 San Antonio-area locations that are certified sensory inclusive.

How it works: The Autism Society of Texas guides organizations and companies on how to plan activities and events for sensory-challenged people. They also train employees on what to expect and how to adapt to their guests.

  • "Something as easy as being able to buy your own groceries can be life-changing," Crostley says. "It makes a huge difference being able to feel part of the community, being able to gain access to things that you weren't able to."

Reality check: Challenges remain for individuals with autism, including long wait times to get a diagnosis and difficulty finding accommodations in day-to-day activities, Crostley says.

What's next: Chuck E. Cheese will open two hours early on Sunday — and the first Sunday of every month — to offer a quieter environment, dimmed lighting and specially trained staff. The San Antonio Chuck E. Cheese at 11735 Bandera Road is participating.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios San Antonio.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More San Antonio stories

No stories could be found

San Antoniopostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios San Antonio.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more