If you’re a theater lover like me, it’s likely you remember the first play or musical you ever saw.
Mine was a community theater production of “The Princess and the Pea” that my grandmother took my sister and me to see (I was 4 and she was 6). I still can recall holding my grandmother’s hand when the theater lights went down and the magic of watching the actors bring the story to life. The Princess was funny! My grandmother was proud of how my sister and I sat still and watched. She, as well as my parents, took us to see live theater throughout our childhood.
From the time my son George, 13, was born, I looked forward to the time that he and I could share the experience of live theater. However, when George was 2 years old, he began to show intense reactions — crying, screaming and even fleeing — to environments that were especially loud or visually overwhelming (think shopping mall at holiday time).
By 3, a doctor had diagnosed him with autism, and along with the communication and social delays that were challenging his ability to function without a lot of support, we learned that he, like many people on the autism spectrum, also had sensory-processing difficulties (click here to watch video clips of what sensory overwhelm can feel like).
George started working with occupational therapists to help him address his sensory issues … but that process is not a quick-fix solution and it has only been over time that he’s been able to better tolerate being in places with loud music and crowds.
George is non-verbal and communicates his needs and interests through a communication device, but he is not yet able to express his anxieties except through his behavior (such as by leaving ). We’ve had to be extremely proactive in helping George prepare for and adjust to settings outside of his places of comfort — home and school.
Our experience is very common for families raising children with autism — and others who are sensory sensitive. Life for us can feel restricted and isolated; when George was younger, simple trips to the grocery store could be overstimulating. I couldn’t conceive of how we’d ever take George to see a play or musical.
Enter TDF’s Autism Theater Initiative, which began in 2011 with a mission to create opportunities for families like mine to experience theater. The TDF website describes what make the show a good fit for people with autism.
“Each show is performed in a friendly, supportive environment for an audience of families and friends with children or adults who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or other sensitivity issues. Slight adjustments to the production are made, including the reduction of any jarring sounds or strobe lights focused into the audience. Plus, in the theatre lobby there are quiet and activity areas, staffed with autism specialists, for those who need to leave their seats during the performance.
Downloadable social narratives with pictures of the theatres and productions, are available several months in advance of the performances.”
We had the good fortune of seeing TDF’s recent autism-friendly production of “The Lion King.” My family (George, his sister, June, 11, and my husband) and I drove from our home in Philadelphia to the Times Square theater. The day before the show, we had read TDF’s social story with George, who has a very visual memory and processes pictures and visual imagery much more easily than language. We parked and walked to the theater — he smiled when he saw “The Lion King” marquee. We had time for lunch and even stopped at a sweet shop to pick up a treat for the play — occupational therapists have explained that for many sensory-seeking kids like George, the oral stimulation of chewing gum or candy can help him feel calm and regulated. George picked out a bag of jelly beans while June selected a giant lollipop.
It was so wonderful to see volunteers in their T-shirts at the end of the block waving and welcoming us to the theater. There were plenty of people to guide families and offer kids fidget toys, which can help to calm children with sensory issues and short attention spans.
We took our seats. “I like shows for kids with autism,” said June. “I get to eat my candy during the show.” George sat looking around the theater while rocking his body — another way that he calms himself when excited or stimulated. Other children and adults with autism made excited noises, stood up, called out, walked up and down the theater aisle. It was all good. I looked around at the other parents and felt so much joy that we could be there with our families.
The show began and George’s face erupted in an enormous smile, which I can honestly tell you he kept going through the entire show. He continued to rock back and forth during the performance and no one stared at us — so different from what we experience in most public settings. Some children needed to leave the theater for the quiet area, but the majority stayed in their seats, transfixed by the music, the performers, the incredible visual tapestry of “The Lion King.”
In the opening song, “The Circle of Life,” I wept quietly at the majesty of the giraffes and elephants coming to life, and at the gratitude I felt to be experiencing the moment with both my children.
What TDF has done for parents like me is to honor the humanity in our children. The arts elevate and connects us. People with autism may appear different — their bodies held in repetitive movements like flapping arms or verbal tics. This disconnect between brain and body can cause people to think that they somehow aren’t present or participating in the world around them.
But in fact, my son and others with autism, if anything, are too often too finely attuned to the world. Small adjustments like gentle lighting and the understanding of those around them — in this case, the performers, ushers, volunteers and theater staff — make it possible for all of us to share in the magical experience that live theater creates.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture's Whole Community Inclusion. She also writes and edits for "The New Normal" and for WHYY’s website, Newsworks. Her latest book, The Little Gate Crasher, is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfieartist who was 43 inches tall.