My family has a longstanding love of the performing arts. When my sisters and I were kids, our parents took us to touring shows at Proctor's Theater in Schenectady, New York, and other local productions. I have continued the tradition with my daughters, introducing them to a variety of performances around New York City. (You can read about that here and here.)
My sister Susan and her husband, Josh, planned to do the same with their son, Seamus, but it’s more complicated for them. Seamus, 12, is on the autism spectrum. He has difficulty with unfamiliar environments, with loud or unexpected noises, with bright lights, and with sitting still in general. Sometimes he responds to these situations by talking loudly or yelling, standing up and waving his arms, or simply leaving the room entirely.
As none of these behaviors is part of a traditional theatergoing experience, Susan assumed that theater was just one more thing she wouldn't be able to share with her son. "I love theater, and it was something that I wanted Seamus to experience, but we couldn't take him to a regular show without it being a huge disaster," she says.
But in 2013, Susan read about an autism-friendly performance of "The Lion King" offered by the Theatre Development Fund's Autism Theatre Initiative (ATI) and decided to buy tickets for the family, including Seamus’ grandmother, also an avid theatergoer. They weren’t sure what to expect, but they were excited for Seamus to experience live theater in a safe, understanding environment.
They weren't disappointed. The family walked into a welcoming and comfortable space, perfectly tailored to the needs of the audience. Susan was thrilled. “It was important to have the ability to come and go without feeling like we were being disruptive,” she tells me.
During the performance, the house lights were kept on a dim setting, rather than going completely dark. Sound levels were lowered, and TDF volunteers on either side of the stage gave warnings before loud noises or scenes that might be disturbing, allowing families to reassure anyone who might need support. Families were also free to come and go, to escort especially sensitive individuals to a quiet room, or to visit an activity area adjacent to the auditorium. There were also trained volunteers stationed throughout the theater in case an individual or family needed assistance.
Seamus had to leave only once (to get a snack), and he loved the show. My sister wasn't surprised. "He loves songs, dancing, rhythm, and puppets, so how could he not love it?"
Since then, she says Seamus has attended other theater performances — both specifically intended for audiences with special needs and not — and she feels it has helped him to expand his imagination and explore creative possibilities. It’s also given him an idea of what a live performance is and how you should behave in the theater (whether he actually does or not).
Most importantly, she says, the autism-friendly or “relaxed” performances have given her and her husband, as well as Seamus' grandma, more confidence to expose Seamus to new experiences. "We're overjoyed to share our love of theater with him in a setting that was comfortable for everyone,” Susan adds. “We try to find other activities now that will be fun for all of us, but where he will be supported."
If you have a child or family member who has sensory sensitivities, and are interested in attending an autism-friendly performance, please check out the organizations and events below.
This initiative's most recent season of autism-friendly performances of Broadway shows included "The Lion King", "The Phantom of the Opera", "Aladdin", "Kinky Boots", and "Cats". The shows are presented in a supportive environment with sound and lighting modifications for those with sensory sensitivities. A quiet room is available for audience members who need a break. Sign up to get information about upcoming performances here.
Lincoln Center recently announced plans to launch this month-long festival in April 2018. Catering to children on the autism spectrum and their families, it will include performances of "Up and Away", "Light Show", and "Odyssea", all created specifically for special-needs audiences. Performances will include adjacent quiet rooms for theatergoers who need a break. Workshops for theater companies interested in making their productions more accessible will also be offered as part of the festival.
The Blue Men have teamed up with Autism Speaks on their third year of autism-friendly performances at venues throughout the country. The New York City performance, scheduled for Sat. Nov. 4, will feature reduced sound and light levels (although strobe lights will still be used), minimized audience interaction, and a quiet area in the lobby. Headphones or earplugs will be provided upon request.
Select performances at the New Vic are adapted to be more accessible to those with sensory sensitivities and other special needs. In addition to lowered sound volumes and lighting intensity, audience members have access to activity and quiet areas during the show, and a family restroom. Autism-friendly performances are being scheduled for the current season, and some have already been announced on the theater's website.
From October 25 - November 26, the Sheen Center is presenting the premiere of Tectonic Theater Project’s “Uncommon Sense”, a new play about living on the autism spectrum. Though certain performances will be specifically marked as “relaxed”, the theater’s website states that all performances will be welcoming and that no audience member will ever be shushed or removed for any spectrum-related behavior.
Have you seen an autism-friendly or “relaxed” performance? Tell us about your experience in the comments!