Mystic Aquarium is dedicated to offering all our guests an educational, engaging, and entertaining experience. The rise of virtual reality and interactive technologies offers us new ways to connect people with our exhibits. One of the ways we are doing this is by creating immersive multisensory encounters. These experiences blend visuals, touch, sound, smell, and movement, enhancing information absorption compared to traditional displays. While this dynamic environment adds to the enjoyment for most visitors, we recognize that individuals with sensory processing challenges, such as autism, chronic migraines, and ADHD, need support navigating these highly sensory experiences.
To ensure inclusivity for all our guests, Mystic Aquarium has introduced various options for those seeking a less stimulating atmosphere. A highlight among these initiatives is our annual Sensory Friendly Night at the Aquarium. Every summer, in collaboration with Quinnipiac University, we host this unique event, featuring adapted indoor and outdoor settings with reduced sound, lighting, and motion. This special evening, which is made possible through a grant from the Connecticut Health & Educational Facilities Authority, is spearheaded by graduate students from Quinnipiac University, who spend a 12-week fieldwork externship at Mystic Aquarium. This year, Mystic Aquarium welcomed four students pursuing their Doctor of Occupational Therapy degrees: Breanna Ciardullo, Amber Flicek, Sabine Hasan, and Ayanna Samual. The event they plan and attend provides on-site support throughout the night.
Additionally, the Quinnipiac group has trained our Aquarium staff and volunteers in supporting and assisting guests effectively. “We educated them on de-escalation techniques and how to identify signs of needing assistance or a quieter space before someone becomes overwhelmed,” Samuel stated. Flicek further added, "Teaching others is a vital aspect of our occupational therapy program. The skills and tools we provide to Mystic Aquarium contribute to ensuring a welcoming environment year-round."
During the event, staff and volunteers were strategically positioned around the Aquarium in potentially overstimulating areas. "Applying OT techniques in an aquarium may not be conventional, but these needs exist everywhere. Being here allowed me to apply my knowledge in innovative ways," explained Hasan.
The partnership with the Quinnipiac group proved mutually beneficial. Ciardullo expressed, "It was heartwarming to combine our occupational therapy expertise with the Aquarium event to foster progress and serve diverse groups."
The event was a resounding success, with one guest sharing, "This has been our favorite visit in a year and a half. It was remarkable to be around understanding individuals, including professionals who respected and were kind to our son. We were moved by the acceptance and warmth of the evening."
Kelly Matis, Vice President of Education and Conservation, emphasized the profound impact and importance of such inclusive events, stating, "Sensory Friendly Night exemplifies our commitment to making Mystic Aquarium a place of welcome and wonder for everyone. By tailoring our environment to accommodate sensory needs, we are not only enriching the experiences of those who attend but also contributing to a more compassionate and understanding society."
Beyond Sensory Friendly Night, Mystic Aquarium applies the skills learned and continually enhances resources for guests with sensory needs. We are a KultureCity Sensory Certified Organization indicating a commitment to inclusion. Through this effort, we offer sensory bags containing items like noise-canceling headphones and fidget items. The New Haven Health Family Lounge and First Aid Center serves as a designated quiet area equipped with tools to support individuals of unique sensory needs. Moreover, we're improving signage throughout the Aquarium to guide guests toward available resources and how to access them.
By: Erica Casper
August 29, 2023