Dr. Daniela Ferdico is the co-creator of a unique non-profit organization entitled “Sensory Access.” Sensory Access provides resources, consultation, planning and implementation to bring solutions to event organizers while creating inclusion and accessibility for people with sensory processing difficulties. By doing this, autistic individuals, and people with sensory issues such as epilepsy, Down Syndrome, PTSD, Fragile X Syndrome, hearing difficulties, etc., can experience some of society’s most popular events such as concerts, festivals, Broadway shows, Disney and wider world spectaculars.

Dr. Ferdico was inspired to create Sensory Access after drawing from her own personal experiences with neurodiversity in her family. She leads a neurodevelopmental diagnostic practice and focuses on clients living on the autism spectrum, and those with epilepsy, learning disorders and ADHD. She graduated from Gonzaga University with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Criminal Justice and went on to earn a master’s and doctorate in Clinical Psychology with special training in Neuropsychology. She currently serves as the Director of Sensory Accessibility for Expo 2020 in Dubai, the first World’s Fair in history to be sensory accessible.

There are always challenges in life. There will always be pieces to put together and progress to be made. Sometimes a reward comes as a smile, a touch, or a dawning sense that all will work out. Sometimes there is no map for the road we find ourselves on. It lies ahead, uncharted in the mist. We are all traveling through one another’s countries, and we learn to live better by finding strength in joint forces. 

This is a very unique organization, what inspired you to start “Sensory Access?”

My inspiration has been my kids and all the individuals I work with in my practice. I have hyperacusis, so I have difficulties with how my brain processes sound. My son is autistic and my daughter is neurodivergent, so we three have different ways of making our way through the world. We love to travel and experience different things. Going through the experience as a person with a disability is already interesting, but watching my kids work their way through is really inspiring. In my private practice, I work with all kinds of clients ranging from those who are autistic, epileptic, have ADHD, or other genetic differences. I hear all the stories of how they process sensory information and how they are excluded from activities the rest of us take for granted. Through all these experiences I have found there are many easy ways to open up an experience or event to make it inclusive.  

Now when you say sensory, are you also speaking about deaf and blind and other sensory issues as well?

Yes. My personal experience as someone who has hearing differences, most of my work has to do with autism, ADHD and neurodiversity pertaining to how the brain processes sensory information. In our work at Sensory Access, we work with all accessibility even though our focus is on hidden disabilities, which includes hearing difficulties, autism, etc. — anything that includes how one processes their sensory environment.

Why is it important to you for people with sensory disabilities to get out and experience events and join in?

Through this pandemic we’ve had nearly two years of not being able to go to a full capacity concert, the theater, or a sporting event. Those things are just starting to come back in a very altered way. The average person doesn’t fathom how important it is for those with sensory challenges to come together as a community and share experiences at these events. Most individuals with sensory processing difficulties are completely excluded. They try to go to a football game or a concert, but it’s too loud, too bright, with too many unexpected moments. You might save up money to go to an event only to leave part way through because it’s just too overwhelming. Oftentimes, the only thing needed is knowing what to expect in advance. Say you’re going to a Broadway show, and you know ahead of time that there’s a bright strobing light in Act 1 Scene 2 and a loud gong in Scene 5. If I know of these few intense moments beforehand, I can prepare myself and still experience the show with my family and community. When I am unaware and taken by surprise, that experience then becomes painful to endure, for myself and/or my child and I’ll feel compelled to leave. My goal through Sensory Access is to provide this information and create inclusion so anyone can experience any event at any time just like the majority of people.  

This might be a weird question; I’ve been going to concerts since I can remember. A lot of these concerts I go to involve dangerous mosh pits, but they are part of the experience. Can you walk me through, even a regular concert experience, what do you have to do to prepare?

We work with many concerts and music festivals. For example, many autistic teenagers want to go to a concert and experience that mosh pit. There’s nothing like being in that throng of people enjoying your favorite performer, singing along, and dancing to the music. It’s an incredible experience that is hard to replicate. Many individuals with sensory processing difficulties do get overwhelmed. We try to work directly with tours to find out ahead of time whether there are going to be pyrotechnics, strobes, etc. 

One of my favorite things is to work directly with the touring band to help them work with their disabled guests to provide information, create access and help the venue be as inclusive as the band wants — we act as the accessibility interface between the band, their fans, and the venue.

At concerts we provide sound reducing headphones, ear plugs, or fidgets, but there may be unexpected moments we can’t predict that could make additional sensory impact. With notice we can provide a therapist or a companion for that person, someone who can accompany them in the crowd and who could help make things easier to manage. If they do feel overwhelmed and need to get out of that environment, it’ll be easy for them to do so — they won’t get stuck in the crowd and become sensory overwhelmed, and they won’t just have to weather the storm in the middle of a mosh pit, which would be dangerous. They’ll be able to signal to their companion/therapist whether they want to stay or leave. It’s about being able to make a judgement call in the moment. At larger events such as Lollapalooza we often have our own staff up front with security watching out for our guests in the crowd, helping them get out of the pit when needed.  Ideally, we work with the venue to create safe viewing areas for those with sensory difficulties as well as quiet spaces to retreat to when needed. At Lollapalooza, we create entire sensory areas where individuals come take sensory breaks before they head back out to the next band.

For example, we worked with an individual who wanted to attend a music festival in Milan, Italy. Their favorite band was playing and as luck would have it, we had a connection with that band. We reached out to management, and they arranged access to a special, less crowded seating section. It was the first time this person had the opportunity to experience their favorite band in person. We don’t always have those connections, but to be able to help an individual have that experience for the first time ever is nothing short of incredible. It takes the venue, the artist, and everyone together to create that kind of experience. It doesn’t necessarily cost more or take more work to create; it’s just a matter of communicating with everyone and knowing what the individual needs. 

A lot of times they’re completely overwhelming even in the best of circumstances. Now take for example, a Broadway show or a concert in a concert hall, or a classical concert. I assume they’d be easier to prepare for but how would you have the venues prepare for it and do you have the venues prepare?

We always alert the venue that we know folks who are attending that have accessibility requirements. We work with them to see what they can offer — ear protection for example. We provide the venue with sensory kits that include things like communication cards for non-speaking people so they can point to things they need such as a restroom or concession stand. We create social Narratives to help guests know what to expect ahead of time, so they can make their own choices.

What would you suggest for venues in the future? What kind of campaign would you use to make sure that venues are more sensory friendly?  

The biggest problem right now is that accessibility is an afterthought. People don’t factor it in until the very end of the event planning process. Do we have ramps? Can we get an ASL interpreter? These things are almost always thought of after the fact. Sensory difficulty is the last of the disabilities considered when it comes to accommodation. It’s always easier when we go into the designing and the planning of an event to think about accessibility from the onset — what are some of the experiences an individual may have? What is the process to get to the venue? What are the accessibility accommodations already in place and how we can we optimize them?

I tend to focus on the sensory accessibility piece. Ninety percent is just having information. We’ve been working with the World’s Fair, World Expo 2020 Dubai. This is the first time in history that a World’s Fair has been autism and sensory accessible. We went through every single experience, every pavilion, every technology, and innovation showcase. Many experiences we surveyed had bright flashing lights, immersive 360-degree rooms, and amazing audio. We evaluated every single one and created sensory rating cards. Autistic and sensory sensitive individuals on our team went through each experience and rated it on sound, smell, tactile, and visual impact. We made the information available on the Expo’s website. An autistic individual or a person with some sort of sensory processing difficulty can review information about that experience, determine what it might entail, and then prepare themselves accordingly. They’ll know to bring their headphones or avoid a certain room. If they have epilepsy and can’t handle strobing lights, they can avoid that space. Advance information is key, the rest is being able to provide specific accommodations — which is not always necessary but an added bonus. By simply providing advance information, we can go a long way to make something accessible.  

What about having an event especially for individuals who, for example, can’t do strobe lights or can’t function without being afraid or uncomfortable. What about having events start out that way and then having everyone join. Don’t you think that would be easier?

Yes and no. It’s always a balance. Certain Broadway shows, like Frozen, have a lot of sensory impact. There’s strobing, sounds of glaciers cracking, all sorts of amazing moments meant to stimulate the senses. For Broadway for example, the ideal is to have one show in a run be sensory friendly, and the rest be sensory accessible. Meaning, one show has altered the production to reduce sound, and take out significant sensory impact for those who really cannot enjoy the show otherwise. The rest of the run is accessible, meaning we provide information about sensory impact ahead of time, and have sensory tools available. Currently in Seattle for example, every major theater and ballet all have their entire season Sensory Accessible!

The problem with only having one show be Sensory Friendly is that it becomes almost exclusive … If I’m autistic or have sensory processing difficulties, I don’t want to be forced to only attend that one show. What if I can’t go that day? Making the entire production run accessible by providing information, by having a scene-by-scene breakdown of the sensory impactful moments, allows me to go to any show I want with my friends, family, and community. That’s the difference between sensory accessible and sensory friendly. I try to find balance between what a show is trying to create and how it can remain accessible to everyone.

This is all very interesting and fascinating. Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you want to add?

I come at this from personal perspective — watching my kids go through this, experiencing disability myself, as well as working with individuals who live with this. I’ve learned so much from my kids. My daughter co-founded the organization with me and at 17 she is one of the most amazing leaders when it comes to sensory accessibility. She’s headed to college next year and is going to work in an immersive environment within the video game industry through an accessibility lens. It’s exciting to watch her experience all of this and be able to give back to the world at such a young age. Then looking at someone like my son, who’s autistic, who didn’t speak at all when he was younger, and now at 16 he leads training sessions and discusses his experience as an autistic teenager to help others understand his experience.  

To see that growth from individuals on a personal level and then to be able to watch some of these productions, to be able to witness people take in a sensory friendly performance, where they can just stand up and sing along or twirl in the aisle because they’re allowed to, there is really nothing like that feeling. We all have our lifetimes on this planet and if I can leave a little bit of a legacy of creating some inclusion, or if nothing else, empowering my children to overcome their struggles and help others — that in and of itself is an amazing accomplishment. Everyone has the ability make their company or their event a little bit more inclusive. It’s not that difficult to do, it just requires a little awareness, accountability, and accommodation.