There is a growing body of research that suggests visiting an aquarium and watching schools of fish has the soothing health benefits of reducing heart rates and significantly lowering blood pressure.
Even though many people feel relaxed and at ease while exploring the galleries of the Tennessee Aquarium, others might be overwhelmed or experience anxiousness at times.
“Individuals with autism, dementia, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and similar conditions face hurdles that many of us rarely consider unless we have family or friends with sensory sensitivities or challenges,” says Mara-Lynne Payne, the Aquarium’s manager of diversity and inclusion. “While some of our staff have been trained to assist guests with sensory sensitivities for many years, we were looking for an opportunity to provide more training and the necessary tools to offer the most comfortable and accommodating experience for all of our guests.”
To that end, the Aquarium partnered with KultureCity, a nationally-recognized non-profit that works with visitor-serving organizations to revolutionize and bring about change in the community for individuals with sensory needs. KultureCity toured the Aquarium to identify “Headphone Zones” and “Quiet Zones” that could serve as oases of calm for guests in need of a quieter, less-stimulating environment.
As part of the certification process, KultureCity provided staff training. Leading medical professionals shared best practices for recognizing individuals with sensory needs and how best to assist over-stimulated visitors. Other Aquarium staff and volunteers are able to take sensory inclusion training through online modules.
“To earn KultureCity’s sensory inclusion certification, we had to have 50 percent of our team trained,” Payne says. “Everyone was enthusiastic about this program, and we now have more than 80 percent of our staff ready to assist guests.”
Sensory bags, equipped with noise-cancelling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads are now available for visitors who may feel overwhelmed by their surroundings. These kits are available for check-out at the Tennessee Aquarium, Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater and Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.
“We at KultureCity are truly honored to partner with the Tennessee Aquarium to make them the very first sensory-inclusive location in this great state,” says Dr. Julian Maha, the co-founder of KultureCity. “As a father of a child with a sensory need, having a great organization like this step up and be inclusive means the world. Not only is the Tennessee Aquarium taking the step to care for all individuals, regardless of their abilities, but they are also making a proactive move to create a community that not only understands but supports our families and our loved ones.”
A Sensory Inclusive Certification kickoff event is planned for Saturday, Sept. 15. As part of this event, the Aquarium is partnering with WTCI-TV, Creative Discovery Museum, and the Chattanooga Autism Center to offer special programs at the Aquarium and the IMAX theater.
10:30 a.m. —Families can meet live sea creatures in the IMAX Great Hall.
11 a.m. – A special sensory-friendly screening of PBS Kids’ “Splash and Bubbles” at IMAX. This animated film takes kids on an underwater adventure led by Splash, Bubbles and their best friends Dunk, Ripple and others. With lots of play, comedy and music, these Reeftown Rangers go on epic adventures to discover marine biology and oceanography. Note: This 2D presentation will be shown with some house lights on and lower audio levels than normal film screenings. This sensory screening is being offered free, but guests must register online: https://community.tnaqua.org/events/member-programs/fall/2018/splash-and-bubbles-movie-2018
After the screening, guests can tour the Aquarium to enjoy the following programs with their admission. No registration required:
1:30 p.m. – “Fit to Survive” in River Journey
2 p.m. – “Octopus Enrichment in Ocean Journey
3 p.m. – “Critter Closeup” in River Journey
4 p.m. – “The Tooth About Sharks” in Ocean Journey