Planning the ultimate family weekend trip? Here are 5 top Toronto attractions that go the extra mile to welcome all, including neurodivergent visitors.
My wonderful twentysomething brother is neurodiverse and has hyperacusis (very sensitive hearing), so my family is always on the lookout for sensory-friendly experiences we can enjoy together.
(I enjoy these relaxed settings too, because the older I get, the more frazzled I am by loud, ultra-bright spaces.)
These are five top city attractions we love that prioritize accessibility for neurodivergent visitors requiring accommodations like quiet areas, lower lighting and sound levels, sensory maps, sensory bags and more.
Masai Giraffes, lowland gorillas, Komodo dragons, and Western Grey kangaroos are just some of the epic wildlife at the sprawling 287 hectares (710 acres) Toronto Zoo.
New for summer 2023, the zoo offers a social story so you can prep for your visit, and there’s also a superb sensory map from KultureCity (a trusted nonprofit advocate for sensory accessibility) indicating quieter areas perfect for unwinding and pointing out louder ones where one might want to wear headphones.
If you’re up for rides like the Conservation Carousel but not the waiting-in-line part, head to the Rentals/Access building at the front gate to sign out a ride access pass.
You can also sign out a sensory bag, which includes headphones, a map and fidget toys. Additionally, all staff have sensory-inclusive training.
Ontario Science Centre
My family of factoid-fiends always has fun at the Ontario Science Centre (OSC), but it gets loud in there! We use these OSC-recommended strategies to ensure we all have an awesome time checking out the turtles in the rainforest and the games in the Science Arcade.
First, we visit on weekdays after 2 p.m. when crowds head home. Second, we head to the Quiet Zone room for sensory breaks. Third, when “hanger” strikes, we grab a snack from the food court. If it’s hectic, we eat it in the seating on Levels 2, 4 and 6 (you can bring your own food to any of these spots).
At the time of this writing, the Centre is undergoing renovations, including a shuttle ride to shepherd you to the back entrance; there’s a social story with detailed images to tell you what to expect when you visit.
Royal Ontario Museum
Dinosaur skeletons, Ancient Egypt dioramas and suits of shining armour never fail to delight us at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). It’s a must-see for kid-friendly weekend getaways in Toronto.
Before a visit, we check the ROM Sensory Friendly Guide for a refresher. The ROM can be noisy and echo-y in some spaces, so the museum has identified quiet spaces on each floor, but you can also ask any security guard for access to the First Aid and Special Needs Room if you need more privacy.
We hit the ROM on weekdays after 2 p.m. to ensure a quieter vibe. Bonus, this also gives us more time to geek out at exhibits like the limited-time T.rex: The Ultimate Predator exhibition, minus the crowds.
Hot tip: There’s a McDonald’s across the street because sometimes chicken nuggets and fries are in order.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada
Get close to Giant Pacific Octopuses, clownfish (the star of Finding Nemo) and adorable sea turtles. You’ll find them—and approximately 20,000 other fantastic undersea creatures—at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, the first Canadian attraction to attain a Certified Autism Center designation.
To qualify for this credential, Ripley’s Aquarium staff takes intensive autism sensitivity and awareness training. There’s also helpful Sensory Guide signage at each exhibit detailing sensory impacts.
Our favourite exhibition is the Dangerous Lagoon, where you walk through a tunnel surrounded by moray eels, up-to-400 kg (882 lbs) Queensland groupers and, of course, a wide array of sharks.
Because the tunnel creates a din, my family takes advantage of chilled Sensory Sundays, which feature increased lighting and no background music. Sensory Sundays take place on the first Sunday of every month.
Toronto Blue Jays & Rogers Centre concerts
Take me out to the ball game, or in this case, to Rogers Centre, where baseball fans and Jonas Brothers concertgoers (August 19, 2023) alike can take advantage of the sensory room, located behind the Fan Services desk in section 212.
Available for all concerts and Blue Jays games, this new centre caters to sensory processing needs when a safe, soothing retreat is necessary. There are comfy bean bag chairs, weighted lap pads, a water bubble wall, quiet sensory games and cozy, relaxed vibes.
In partnership with KultureCity, you can also borrow free sensory bags from any fan services station. They include noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys and non-verbal cue cards, so you can cheer on shortstop superstar Bo Bichette from your seat without feeling overwhelmed.