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What is a Silent Disco?

By Pam Dewey • silent disco, silent disco explained, silent disco and autism, silent disco and sensory issues, benefits of a silent disco, sensory support, sensory processing issues, sensory processing support, sensory friendly event, silent disco sensory event, autism, autism acceptance, inclusive events, sensory inclusion, autism and sensory processing • April 20, 2023

Imagine a crowd of people swaying and moving their bodies — as if in time to music — but the only sounds you hear are feet scuffing the floor and the occasional outburst of song. A closer view reveals everyone is wearing headphones, which have lights illuminated in red and green and blue.

Welcome to a silent disco. A silent disco is basically a giant dance party, where all the participants wear headphones. All the participants dance together, but they can individually control the music’s volume and the genre of music they’re listening to. According to RGB Sound, “three DJs simultaneously broadcast their sets to the headphones wirelessly.”

At a silent disco, each DJ typically plays a different genre of music. One DJ might be playing electronic dance music, another spinning hip-hop and R&B tunes, while the third is playing pop music. Each DJ’s set corresponds to a color that lights up on the dancers’ headphones. So, if you see your friend is listening to the red channel, you may want to switch it up and see what song is playing.

How did silent discos start?

The publication Medium states, “There are different one-off accounts of when and where [silent discoes] started, but the general consensus is that it began gaining popularity through music festivals, like Glastonbury and Bonnaroo.” A silent disco allows big festivals like these to get around noise ordinances requiring outdoor music to shut down by 10 or 11 p.m. While this was the original inspiration, as silent discos increased in popularity, many purveyors stumbled onto another benefit.

A silent disco offers a more positive sensory experience

During the beginning of the pandemic, RGB Sound Owner Benjamin Van Sistine says his company began offering silent discos as a way to host socially distanced proms, so high school students could still attend prom. After they started hosting proms, Benjamin says he heard from teachers and other school officials that many kids didn’t attend prom anyway because of their sensory challenges.

People with sensory processing differences have a harder time filtering out sensory information. This can cause them to react with extreme discomfort to loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, crowds and other stimuli. A crowded dance floor with loud music and bright, flashing lights can cause sensory overload for people with sensory differences. Sensory differences are common in children, teens and adults who have autism and people with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional or behavioral issues.

After talking with teachers, Benjamin realized a silent disco was an ideal space for teens with sensory differences to be included in typical experiences, like prom. This led to GenerationNOW Entertainment and RGB Sound partnering on a silent disco at the Fraser Festival, presented by Central Roofing Company, on May 20, 2023, at the Saint Paul RiverCentre from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. The event is a fun, one-of-a-kind, sensory-friendly festival and fundraiser that supports individuals and families impacted by autism. The festival provides a great experience for families of all ages, but it’s also a safe, inclusive space for children, teens and adults with autism, many of whom have sensory processing differences.

At the festival’s silent disco, people can control the volume and type of music streaming in their own headphones, to create a positive sensory experience.

“Wearing headphones is a physical, tactile experience,” says Benjamin. “It helps you create a safe space and places you in your own little world where you can release inhibitions.”

A silent disco creates more inclusion and connection

People with sensory differences often feel like there aren’t many spaces where they can be themselves and be free from judgment. In an article on how silent discos help reduce social anxiety, states, “But by being able to focus on the music in your ears, instead of the people around you, those suffering from anxiety disorders can find refuge at these events. ‘Anxiety often keeps people in their heads,’ explains Maya Benattar, a licensed creative arts therapist with a practice in New York City. ‘Music is a multi-sensory experience that invites a connection between mind and body.’”

A silent disco also invites you to connect with those around you. According to Medium, “You might be thinking dancing next to others with headphones could be isolating, but I actually experienced the opposite. If I chose to venture to my own station different from my friends, I could look around and find at least one other person on the same station (color) as me, and that creates an understanding of connection.”

Connection and inclusion are important for people with autism and sensory issues in the community. Tyler Thoresen is a GenerationNOW Entertainment DJ, who has autism and has received services at Fraser. He, too, is excited about connecting with others at the festival.

"I'm very excited to be able to perform and showcase all of my abilities as a former Fraser client and now currently as a DJ during the silent disco at the festival,” says Tyler. “I’m also excited to increase autism awareness through the power of music. I love being able to entertain and make people happy through performing."