Sensory-friendly Orange County


By Laurie Paolicelli

Upset autistic little boy covering his ears and feeling distressed and overwhelmed by the loud noises in preschool

Orange County strives to be an inclusive environment where differences are recognized, supported, and celebrated. In this spirit, we’ve been an understanding and welcoming community for neurodivergent people and their families since the 1960s, when the TEACCH® Autism Program was launched at UNC-Chapel Hill. The ground-breaking clinical, research and training program has become a global model. Today, our community is home to a number of sensory-friendly activities and neuro-inclusive environments. 

Autistic boy during therapy at home with his father with learning and having fun together. Autism awareness concept

Sensory-Friendly Activities in Chapel Hill

Kidzu Children’s Museum

University Place, 201 S. Estes Drive, Chapel Hill

Instagram: @kidzuchildrensmuseum
Facebook: KidzuChildrensMuseum

On the third Wednesday of each month, Kidzu hosts a neurodivergent-friendly night for kids with sensory processing differences, including autistic youngsters.. Check their schedule for opportunities. And there’s never a crowd at the virtual museum!

Chapel Hill Public Library

100 Library Drive, Chapel Hill

Instagram: @chapelhillpubliclibrary
Facebook: ChapelHillPublicLibrary

The Library offers a lot of options for neurodiverse people of all ages. As part of its Neurodiversity and Nature initiative, it has youth nature sensory kits (and coming soon for adults) that encourage relaxation, mindfulness and fine motor skills. Check availability here.

B3 Coffee

Various locations

Instagram: @b3coffee
Facebook: B3Coffee

This nonprofit uses coffee to bring together neurodiverse and sensory-sensitive people – and their neurotypical friends and family – for social and vocational opportunities. Many of its public programs are at the Chapel Hill Public Library, including a casual gathering most Sundays at 1:00 pm, where participants chat, play games, make crafts and more. Check the B3 calendar to find events and programming.

The Gathering Place

157 E. Rosemary Street, Second Floor, Chapel Hill

Instagram: @thegatheringplacegames
Facebook: TheGatheringPlaceGames

Although they don’t have specific quiet hours, this gaming-focused bar in uptown Chapel Hill is an openly welcoming, inclusive and considerate neurodivergent-friendly environment. They turn down the music from 11:00 am – 2:00 pm daily to make the space more welcoming to families with kids.

Morehead Planetarium & Science Center

250 E. Franklin Street, Chapel Hill

Instagram: @moreheadplanetarium
Facebook: MoreheadPlanetarium

You can visit the place where NASA astronauts trained! The Planetarium offers science and space programming, exhibits, a tinker space and a full-dome digital video projection theatre. Sensory-friendly public programming is under development, including regularly scheduled neuroinclusive events in the fall of 2024. Check their calendar and social media for updates.

Blawesome Farm

1002 Cane Valley Lane, Chapel Hill

Instagram: @beautiful.blawesome
Facebook: beautifulblawesome

Visit a flower farm and shop co-owned and operated by Raimee Sorenson, who lives with autism, and his family. The farm hosts floral design and other workshops, and private, personalized sessions. Learn more about workshopshere. Schedule a tour here.

Blawesome Farm. For more information:

Neuro-Inclusive Carrboro

The ArtsCenter

400 Roberson Street, Carrboro

Instagram: @artscenterlive
Facebook: ArtsCenterLive

The arts hub of Carrboro, ArtsCenter visitors can attend art exhibitions, musical and theatrical performances and classes. Its staff receives training from Neurodiversity Empowerment Services and is dedicated to creating a neuro-inclusive and sensory-friendly environment for self-expression and arts engagement.

Autistic boy looks at the camera with his mouth open, Autistic behavior traits

Sensory-Supportive Activities in Hillsborough

Orange County Public Library, Main Branch

137 W. Margaret Lane, Hillsborough

Instagram: @ocplnc
Facebook: OCNCLibrary

The Main Branch holds a Sensory-Friendly Browsing Hour for ages 0-18 and their caregivers on the fourth Wednesday from 9:00 am – 10:00 am, before the library opens to the public. Registration is required. They also have neuro-inclusive furnishings such as light covers to reduce brightness, lounge chairs with lap desks and bean bags. Sensory kits in the Children’s Area and Teen Room include noise-canceling headphones, dark glasses, fidgets and weighted lap pads.

Bluestem Conservation Cemetery

1900 Hurdle Mills Road, Cedar Grove

Instagram: @bluestemcemetery
Facebook: BluestemConservationCemetery

Nestled in the rolling hills of northern Orange County, this 87-acre nature preserve has a quiet hour every Friday from 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm. The sensory-friendly environment features easy meadow and woodland trails and picnic tables. It’s also a popular spot for artists, journalers and birdwatchers. One of only 13 conservation cemeteries in the country, Bluestem is open from dawn to dusk every day of the year; all are welcome (including leashed dogs). Check their social media for the most up-to-date event information, including sensory walks and other organized opportunities for forest bathing and quiet reflection.

Bluestem Conservation Cemetary

Other Resources

Recognizing and embracing neurodiversity as a natural variation in human brain functioning is crucial for promoting inclusivity and acceptance in our communities. By valuing and celebrating the diversity of human thinking, we can create more accommodating and accessible environments that allow everyone to thrive.

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
This reporter can be reached at

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