Broadway Strikes an Autism-Friendly Chord
FRIDAY Dec. 9, 2011 -- For most Americans, attending the theater is just one more form of entertainment. But for Katie Sweeney and her family, a recent trip to Broadway was true cause for celebration.
"It was absolute redemption," said Sweeney, recalling the afternoon in October when she, her husband Michael, 16-year-old son Dylan, and 14-year-old son Dusty -- who has autism -- caught a unique performance of "The Lion King."
"It was a special, special moment," she said, because the performance was the first-ever staging of a Broadway musical specially adapted for an audience of people with autism.
Watching Dusty take in the show in an environment that understood his needs was "among the highlights of my life," said Sweeney.
According to organizers, the performance in the 1,600-seat theater had quickly sold out (with another 1,000 families on a waiting list for tickets), pointing to a real need for accessible theater for the autism-spectrum community.
That's because more typical performances aren't suited to people with autism, explained Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks.
First of all, she said, people with autism often struggle with a host of acute "sensory sensitivities," turning large crowds, bright lights and loud sounds into big stressors. "Unfortunately, this often limits the kinds of experiences that they can share with their families," she said. The added stimuli of the theater can also exacerbate "stimming" behaviors -- repetitive fidgeting or calling out that can interfere with the experience of other theatergoers.
"My son Dusty is lower-function autistic," said Sweeney. "He can spell and he can read, he can point to things and label them, he can express very basic needs. But when communicating he's pretty much nonverbal."
Dusty also engages in stimming, she said, "which can be very verbal. He will self-talk. Repetitively speak. And when we're in public, people who don't understand the situation will think he's just misbehaving."
All of this means that Sweeney, like most parents of children with autism, had learned to avoid the traditional theater. She recalled an incident that occurred at another Broadway production she brought Dusty to five years ago, which ended in mother and son being asked by staff to leave the venue. Dusty was visibly upset, said Sweeney, who called the moment "one of the lowest points in my life."
So, "just like we have built wheelchair ramps to accommodate people with physical disabilities, we need to provide accommodations for people with autism so they can be part of our community and share in the activities that other people enjoy," Dawson reasoned.
October's autism-friendly performance of "The Lion King" was the brainchild of the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), the nation's largest nonprofit art services organization, and it marked the launch of its "Autism Theatre Initiative."
"We have many different programs that focus on reaching out and making theater available to audiences with a range of physical disabilities," noted Lisa Carling, director of TDF's Accessibility Programs. "Special Ed teachers we've worked with in the past -- to provide accessible performances for students who are deaf or have vision issues -- asked us what we could do for students on the autism spectrum," Carling explained.
"There wasn't really a way that we could see to integrate a typical Broadway house [audience] with this kind of audience," Carling stressed. "It wouldn't have served the purpose of creating an accepting environment where everyone could just be themselves without being judged. So we decided that the best thing to do was simply buy out the entire house [for an autism-spectrum audience]."
And so they did, partnering up with Disney, which invited a panel of four autism experts to check out "The Lion King" to identify elements of the production where light and sound effects might require changes.
"Now I want to emphasize, this was the same 'Lion King,'" stressed Carling. "We did not want to present a watered-down version of the show. But Disney has been a natural partner with us in the past in helping to make their shows accessible, and they were totally willing to make some adjustments, like bringing down the sound of a steam blast, lowering the music at points, and eliminating strobe lights."
Many of the biggest accommodations were made off-stage, as dozens of hired "autism educators" -- outfitted in bright yellow shirts -- roamed the theater before, during and after the show, offering up relaxation techniques and a hand to hold. An array of squeeze-balls and toys were also on hand to help the mostly 7- to 12-year-old audience stay relaxed and engaged, while audience members in need of a more complete sensory break could move to a colorful part of the lobby designated as a "quiet zone."
"We found that 81 percent of our audience said this was the first Broadway show they had ever attended as a family," noted Carling. "So clearly this is a tremendously underserved community."
Sweeney agreed. "I have to say that the whole thing was just electric," she said. "Of course it was very noisy, and kids were jumping out of their seats. And stimming. And screaming. But it was never confusing. It was unbelievably well-organized. And the cast didn't miss a beat."
"Honestly, we didn't actually know what to expect," admitted "Lion King" cast member Ben Jeffrey, who plays the supporting lead role of Pumbaa, the warthog. "There was a pretty constant amount of noise -- sort of a sensory overload for everyone. But you really got feedback during the performance. You could see that the music, in particular, seemed to have a very strong effect. You could actually hear the hush coming over the house when it started to play," he said.
"And then afterwards, on a backstage tour, I met a family," Jeffrey added. "And they were just overwhelmed. Overwhelmed and overjoyed. Because this was an experience they would otherwise never have had as a family unit."
TDF already has plans to mount a second autism-friendly show within the coming year.
"I just can't wait," said Sweeney. "Because the whole time we were there my husband and I had tears streaming down our faces. We were looking at Dusty, and he was so engaged in the moment, instead of living in his own world as he usually is. He was clapping at the right moments, singing at the right moments. It was just amazing."
Find out more about autism-spectrum disorders at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke .
Posted: December 2011
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