Sensory-Friendly Wedding Planning Tips for Neurodivergent Couples and Guests
Weddings are beautiful celebrations with a carefully curated guest list. But unless you're thoughtful with wedding planning to make sure the big day is as accessible to everyone as possible, some people may miss out on key elements of the special day. That's where planning a sensory-friendly wedding comes in. Maybe one of the marriers has autism and you're looking to plan your own wedding so that the nuptials better accommodate an autistic bride or autistic groom. Or possibly one or more neurodivergent wedding guests will be attending the big day. Whatever the case may be, planning a wedding with neurodiversity in mind is one step to-be-weds can take in creating a more accessible and inclusive wedding reception. Below we've outlined questions and tips, backed by wedding expert advice, to keep in mind amid the wedding journey.
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Common Questions About Planning Autistic-Accessible Weddings
In order to know what accommodations may be appropriate for your wedding, you first need to understand some frequently asked questions about sensory-friendly weddings. Consider the advice below as you enter into wedding planning.
What is a sensory-friendly wedding?
Planning a sensory-friendly wedding involves thinking about how you can make the big day more accessible to autistic wedding guests and those on the autism spectrum (ASD) so they can fully engage with and enjoy the event.
Broadly speaking, Shannon Collins, an autistic wedding photographer based in Philadelphia, shares that they like Sins Invalid's definition of disability since it aligns closely with their own mindset. The site states that, "We define disability broadly to include people with physical impairments, people who belong to a sensory minority, people with emotional disabilities, people with cognitive challenges, and those with chronic/severe illness. We understand the experience of disability to occur within any and all walks of life, with deeply felt connections to all communities impacted by the medicalization of their bodies, including trans, gender-variant, and intersex people, and others whose bodies do not conform to our culture(s)' notions of 'normal' or 'functional.'" Planning a more accessible wedding means making decisions that include disabled people so they can fully celebrate, and planning a more sensory-friendly wedding is one element of that.
Expert wedding planner Danielle Leilani of Leilani Weddings goes on to add that "sensory-friendly spaces cater to adjusted levels of engagement that impact our senses. Whether that is visually, physically, auditorily, or through taste and scent."
Why does sensory accessibility matter?
Beyond just sensory accessibility, it's important for pros and couples alike to consider how they can make their events more accessible. Collins shares that "being a more inclusive and affirming wedding photographer means examining the intersections of the wedding industry and all of the ways we can strive to do better to serve individuals. Making our services, spaces and communities more accessible is an act of care and something we can and must work on improving together."
What if you don't know if any guests are autistic?
While you likely know if any family members or close loved ones need accommodations, there may be a lot of people on the invite list that you know less about. No one should be forced to share any personal information about themselves, but it is wise to consider avenues that you can create where guests can share information if they choose to. Many couples will ask about dietary restrictions as part of the RSVP process—you can consider expanding that and asking a more open-ended question about any accommodations a guest might need or whether there is any information they'd like to share that would help you plan a more inclusive experience.
8 Steps to Plan a More Sensory-Friendly Wedding
There are quite a few steps couples can take to plan a wedding that is more accessible to sensory-diverse wedding guests. Leilani shares that "whether it means moving chairs to adjust for more space at a table, or scoping out a private area where a guest can find themselves a moment of solitude as a brief intermission from the overall sensory overload, careful attention to detail and genuine care should be at top of mind." As a starting point, consider the eight following tips to help you plan a neurodivergent- and autism-friendly wedding day.
1. Hire a Strong Team of Pros
Hiring an experienced and diverse group of wedding professionals to execute your wedding is a must. Pay attention to the language and work samples that prospective vendors use on their websites and social media to gauge their inclusiveness and expertise. Have they planned sensory-friendly weddings in the past? Do they use closed captions in videos to make their content more accessible? Evaluating how a pro positions their business is a good way to gauge if they'll be a fit for your own special day.
2. Have a Pre-Event Meeting
Unknowns can be overwhelming to anyone, but especially neurodivergent wedding guests and those with a sensory processing disorder. Ask ADHD, neurodivergent and autistic wedding guests if they'd like to either have a prewedding call or even come visit the wedding venue ahead of time. Being able to talk through the schedule of the day will ease nerves and also provides a chance to discuss any elements that may be triggering or difficult to navigate.
3. Create a Sensory-Relaxation Area
Weddings are full of stimulants—from speeches and guest chatter to music, lights and general hustle and bustle. All of these elements, while sometimes fun, can also quickly become a source for over-stimulation. Find a spot that's quiet and slightly removed from the main event space where guests can go to pause and relax. Fill the space with comfortable lounge furniture (a weighted blanket is also a great addition!).
Also, make sure to communicate to guests that they can come and go as they need. No one wants to feel as though they have to stay out when all they really need is a break. Guests will appreciate the freedom to slip away to a relaxation area without causing a scene.
4. Provide Fidget Toys and Sensory-Relaxation Items
In addition to creating a sensory-relaxation area, EquallyWed's Kirsten Palladino, a neurodivergent and severely hearing-impaired wedding expert, advises that you can also have a collection of items, like fidget toys, for guests to use. "For people and children with either autism and/or ADHD, you can put silent fidget toys in the seats for the ceremony or have them in a basket for people to grab one as they come into the ceremony space to help them sit still during the ceremony," suggests Palladino. "If you have a guest coming with greater challenges in focusing and sitting still, consider offering them a balance ball chair."
5. Remember That Every Person and Situation is Unique
While many of the tips shared here are likely to be useful, it's important to remember that disabilities are not one-size-fits-all, especially with sensory sensitivities. Communication, flexibility and empathy are key when it comes to figuring out which accommodations are the best fit for your specific event needs.
6. Be Mindful of Sound
Weddings typically come with a lot of noise, especially if there will be dancing during the reception. Neurodivergent wedding guests may find the loud noise overwhelming. To combat this, provide earplugs for guests who need them.
If you're having wedding welcome bags, place earplugs in guests' bags. Alternatively, you could have some on hand that you're ready to share if or when guests want.
7. Be Mindful of Lighting
Harsh, bright lighting as well as strobe lights can be triggering for autistic and sensory-diverse wedding guests. Make sure to talk with your DJ or other reception entertainment pros to discuss lighting plans. Consider avoiding strobe and flashing lights altogether. However, if that isn't possible, make sure that your wedding program or wedding website states that strobe lights may be present. You also should make sure that the relaxation area is dark and that none of the strobe lighting leaks into that lounge space.
8. Flexibility is Key
Remember that no matter how much you plan, some things may need to be adjusted at the last minute. One of the best things you can do is to be accommodating and patient rather than getting frustrated by spur-of-the-moment adjustments. The more you're able to accommodate everyone at your wedding, the more fully guests will be able to join into the beauty of your celebration.