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A Sensory-friendly and Adaptive Survival Guide to Traveling in Urban Utah

Helpful suggestions for families of disabled and neurodiverse kiddos to help plan a trip with minimal meltdowns and maximum enjoyment.

Written by Stacy Bernal

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Brian Nicholson

Utah is home to some epic outdoor recreation, including some off-the-beaten-path hidden gems, such as Ogden’s Causey Reservoir. Because motorboats are prohibited, it’s a popular spot for kayaking, paddle-boarding, and otherwise leisurely spending a day on the emerald green water. I had recently purchased a four-person inflatable boat and thought it would be a fun family activity to take my then-pregnant daughter, teenage son and youngest son on a summer adventure.

It was a sweltering July day and we were eager to get our float on. As I pumped the boat with air, the kids and I were alarmed to see that it looked significantly smaller than the picture on the box. Determined to enjoy our day, we trudged down to the water and attempted to squeeze ourselves into the boat, like sardines in a tin can. Within ten minutes, I knew this bright idea of mine was going to end disastrously.

It was too hot. Our life jackets were too tight. Everyone was hungry. And sticky. We had Tetris-ed our bodies in so ridiculously that we couldn’t move without fear of capsizing. I was the only one who could paddle with any sort of efficiency, so I grumpily steered us back to shore. My oldest son Haiden immediately jumped out as soon as the water was shallow enough and headed up the beach on the sharp, craggy rocks, his flip-flops sitting in the bottom of the boat. I was trying awkwardly to help my little Eli guy and my big-bellied Mia out of the boat when I heard Haiden’s thunderous voice echoing across the reservoir.

“Myyyyy feet! My f***ing feet!”

I glanced quickly at the other people sitting on the beach and silently prayed, not for the first time in my life, that they would realize he was autistic and experiencing a sensory overload and wasn’t a threat. I grabbed his flip-flops and ran-swam my way to him. By the time I got to him, an older woman was trying to console him. I got Haiden and my other two kids situated, grabbed our boat and paddles, and we headed despondently back to our car.

Not too far from the reservoir there’s a café that serves mediocre food, but that day it tasted like a three-star Michelin restaurant. In the cool air-conditioned dining room, drinking a Coke and eating a burger, Haiden sat happily as if he hadn’t just gone full-on Incredible Hulk a short time before. This episode, like so many others in the past, went one way while I had hoped it would go another. 

Even in 2020 when we went to Disney World, the Happiest Place on Earth, we had found ourselves on a bench in Tomorrowland, soothing, consoling, and trying to understand the overwhelming world from the tear-filled eyes of our sweet young man.

The best-laid plans can go sideways, for any family, anywhere. Knowing that anything from buzzing bugs to the rub of a misplaced seam on a sock can lead to major upset for our disabled and neurodiverse loved ones, it’s usually wise to have some backup plans (yes, plural) in place as well.

Searching for things to do and places to go that are adaptive and sensory-friendly can feel like a frustrating dead-end quest. Oftentimes, family-friendly venues tuck their ADA information into the deep, dark recesses of their websites — or worse, don’t post any information at all.

In an effort to ease frazzled nerves and simplify your search as you plan your Utah trip, I’ve compiled a list of some places around the state that offer noteworthy accommodations for neurodiverse families.

Utah is known for one thing. No, I’m not talking about fry sauce or confusing liquor laws. (Read: “Welcome to the 5 Percent: New Liquor Laws Support Utah’s Vibrant Craft Brew Scene.” 

Okay, maybe Utah is known for more than one thing and our beautiful outdoors is just one of them. From majestic mountain ranges that offer epic hiking, biking, and running to world-class skiing (or so I’m told — I don’t ski) to stunning national parks (Read: “Visit National Parks Like You Know What You’re Doing.”), Utah has absolutely breathtaking scenery. With smart planning, all these activities can be enjoyed by families and individuals of all physical and cognitive abilities.

Photo: Brian Nicholson

Photo: Brian Nicholson

Before heading for a hike, be sure to download the AllTrails app. There are routes that are family- and wheelchair-friendly, so you can find something that will fit your needs whether you’re on feet or tires. 

If you’re heading to southern Utah to explore some of the state’s stunning national parks, consider hiring a guide to help navigate your expedition. I highly recommend Wild Utah Tours, founded by my amazing friend and fellow Autism Spectrum Disorder mama, Shanti Hodges. Not only does Hodges know the area really well, but she also knows how to create an inclusive and sensory-friendly trek for the entire family to enjoy. 

My youngest son Eli went for his first skiing adventure in the winter of 2019, but his big brother Haiden was having none of it. “I’m not a skiing kind of guy,” he told me, which was fine by me since, like I said, I don’t ski. 

But if hitting the slopes is on your list of things to do, there are quite a few organizations throughout the state that offer accommodations for your budding ski bunnies. Some reputable ones include Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports, Wasatch Adaptive Sports, and the National Ability Center. (Link to Bob Wassom’s youth adaptive feature.) They also have programs and rentals for other recreation activities, such as cycling and water sports. Check out their websites for details and be sure to plan in advance, as sometimes there are wait lists for the activities and/or the equipment rental.

A couple years ago, I took Haiden for a session of equine therapy. It was at a time in his life when he was feeling the sting of childhood friendships evaporating. I teared up at how magical it was seeing his face light up as he saddled up and trotted around the pasture on a beautiful horse. Utah has several facilities throughout the state that offer equine therapy, including Courage Reins in Utah County. They typically offer multi-session programs for neurodiverse kids but they can also schedule a one-time ride. If you’re planning a trip that may be full of sensory overwhelm, a calming ride may be just the thing to help balance out your child’s stress.

Tracy Aviary is another great option if your kiddos love birds. (If they hate birds, well you should probably skip this one.) The aviary offers sensory backpacks and its 21-page social story will get the entire family excited about a day full of feathered friends. Their social story describes which exhibits or shows may be loud and includes a list of quiet places where families can decompress. It’s one of the places that Haiden has always loved to go, as a toddler and then into teenage years.

If you’re looking for some indoor excursions, Utah is home to some amazing, family-friendly venues, like the Museum of Natural Curiosity at Thanksgiving Point. On their website you’ll find a 13-page social story that will prep you and your kids on every facet of the museum, from what they will find in their sensory backpack to what color shirt the employees wear to the fact that the toilets are self-flushing. That’s useful information for anyone who has ever experienced the fake bidet spray of an uncalibrated automatic toilet.

If you’re in the downtown Salt Lake City area, Discovery Gateway is worth checking out. We’ve brought the boys there a few times and they loved all the different activities. It’s a popular spot and can get a bit loud and overwhelming, so be sure to check out their accessibility page beforehand so you can plan out some quiet spots of salvation.

The Beehive State has much to offer for family fun, certainly more than I’ve listed here. Many places, such as Fly High Trampoline Park and movie theaters throughout the state, have sensory-friendly accommodations during specific times, so be sure to check for those as well. Seasonally, there are a plethora of activities such as hip farmers markets, eclectic art festivals, drive- or walk-through magical holiday lights, and festive summer “city days” that can add some fun to your trip as well. (Read: “Eat Your Way Through Utah.”) Unless they totally backfire as they sometimes do. But hey, you tried, right?

Hopefully, something here helps the vision of your family’s visit to Utah become a reality, with as few obscenities and as little family drama as possible. May you enjoy all the scenic glory, fry sauce and outdoor recreation fun this state has to offer.

Haiden’s Helpful Hints:
  • You should definitely schedule some time to enjoy the outdoors. “It’s nice going up on the mountains to hike on trails. You get good views.”

  • If you’re planning to try a new activity be sure to bring a known preferred one, like an iPad or coloring book, in case of a sensory overload. “Despite growing up here my entire life, I’ve spent so much time doing indoor things like my drawings and stuff.” 

  • Of all the activities listed here, his favorite is Tracy Aviary. “The amount of birds there. It’s definitely a recommended place if you want to get some stress out because you just walk around and look at some beautiful birds.”

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