Autism-Friendly Performances Offer Potential To Bring In New Dance Audiences

By Steve Sucato

The New Jersey Ballet's family-friendly Pinoccio has been adapted for children with special needs and their families, photo VAM Productions, courtesy New Jersey BalletAround groups of theater patrons are empty seats that act as a sort of personal space buffer zone. People talk, some children play with handheld objects, while others walk the aisles. When the performance begins, the house lights dim but stay on. During the performance some children clap and sing, others jump up and down and twirl, one child lies down in middle of an aisle. While all this commotion is happening the ushers take little notice, nor do the performers on stage and other patrons don’t seem bothered. No child is looked at quizzically for his or her behavior, told to be quiet, be still, or not to move about the theater. In fact, this behavior, considered taboo during a normal theater going experience, is accepted as ordinary during what are termed “sensory-friendly” or “autism-friendly” live arts performances. In recent years, these special performances, typically child-friendly matinees, are a growing trend in theaters around the nation, including first-run Broadway houses.

For parents of children on the autism spectrum or families coping with a member with social cognitive disorders, this type of non-judgmental, free expression theater-going experience is nothing short of a godsend.  “It is so important to have these opportunities for families with someone on the autism spectrum,” says Lisa Carling, director of Theatre Development Fund’s Accessibility Programs. “It is so difficult to do the things most of us take for granted — like going to the movies, a restaurant or shopping because of the unpredictable behavior associated with autism and society’s lack of understanding of it.”

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges in children, teens, and adults. Defined on the American Autism Association website: as a childhood-onset developmental disorder, autism is essentially characterized by a triad of deficits in social reciprocity, communication, and repetitive behaviors or interests, each of which can occur at different levels of severity. People with ASD handle information in their brain differently than other people. And while there are some common symptoms, such as problems with social interaction, the exact nature of the symptoms varies in terms of time of onset, severity, and other more specific conditions.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) around 1 in 88 American children are on the autism spectrum — a ten-fold increase in the past 40 years. An estimated 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls are diagnosed with autism in the U.S. totaling more than 2 million individuals nationally and tens of millions worldwide. Factor in all the siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, etc., of an autistic child and you come up with a potentially huge underserved audience base for live music, theater and dance performances.

While dance has been used as a form of therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum and there have been adaptive dance productions that have featured autistic and special needs adults and children as performers, including Connecticut-based New England Ballet Company’s Adaptive Nutcracker Suite and productions at Atlanta Festival Ballet and Ballet West, dance performances that serve audience members on the autism spectrum or with other social cognitive disorders and their families are a rarity.

While dance has been used as a form of therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum and there have been adaptive dance productions that have featured autistic and special needs adults and children as performers, including Connecticut-based New England Ballet Company’s Adaptive Nutcracker Suite and productions at Atlanta Festival Ballet and Ballet West, dance performances that serve audience members on the autism spectrum or with other social cognitive disorders and their families are a rarity.

New Jersey Ballet was one of the first dance companies in the country to present a sensory-friendly dance performance this past March with its family-friendly ballet production of Pinocchio. The company made an ongoing commitment to such offerings and is programming another sensory-friendly performance, this time of Sleeping Beauty, on March 16, 2014, at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, N.J.

“We have been reaching out and including people with autism in our audience for several years,” says NJ Ballet’s Marketing Director Nancy Hartmann. “We worked closely with UCPAC following their guidelines on sensory-friendly performances. The performance was not altered in any way save for the fact that the house lights remained on at half for the entire performance.”

Because sensory-friendly dance performances are relatively new in this country, those dance organizations looking to add such performances to their offerings have turned to cultural institutions and theater organizations, where much of the research, development, and the bulk of the live sensory-friendly stage offerings (among them Disney’s Lion King, Spiderman, and Robin Hood) have come from for guidance.

One such dance organization seeking that guidance is Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which will make its initial foray into sensory-friendly/autism-friendly performances this December 27 with a slightly modified version of its Pittsburgh-themed The Nutcracker production.

The addition of an autism-friendly Nutcracker performance is another link in the larger chain of PBT’s Accessibility Initiative that has included large-print and braille programs, audio descriptions of its dance programs, and other accommodations for patrons with visual impairments and special needs. Says PBT’s Director of Education and Community Engagement Alyssa Herzog Melby: “An autism-friendly Nutcracker performance is an important step in meeting our mission for serving the larger community.”

The idea of doing an autism-friendly Nutcracker took hold after a patron request and discussions with members of PBT’s staff. Melby, along with intern Jillian Brinberg, a masters of arts management student at Carnegie Mellon University, began researching the steps needed to realize such a performance along with its economic viability and presented their findings to PBT’s management for approval. One person who needed little convincing in moving ahead with the project was PBT Artistic Director Terrence Orr. “I thought this was very important and there was no question I really wanted to do it,” says Orr. “It is amazing how the Pittsburgh community has gotten behind the idea of us doing this. It is going to be quite wonderful.”

Sleeping Beauty Dreams is the Kennedy Center's first sensory-friendly performance, a co-commission by the Kennedy Center and Marionetas de la Esquina of Mexico, photo Carol Pratt, courtesy Kennedy CenterMelby, a 2013 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Award-winner, organized a focus group containing members of local autism advocacy groups, parents of children with autism, and individuals on the autism spectrum. After viewing The Nutcracker production, learning about its characters, music and scenery, the group submitted recommendations to adapt the production to those on the autism spectrum or with other sensory sensitivities. They also consulted with other cultural organizations and autism professionals who have pioneered much of the research and developed the guidelines used in making a live theater-going experience sensory-friendly/autism-friendly.

So what does it actually mean that a performance is sensory-friendly/autism-friendly?

“It is about finding ways to allow individuals with autism to process information without withdrawing or acting out,” says Roger Ideishi, associate professor of occupational therapy at Philadelphia’s University of Sciences. “It is using strategies to alter the theater-going environment to make more autism-friendly.”

Some of these strategies include: eliminating startling changes in theater lighting such as blackouts and leaving the theater’s house lights up a quarter to half their normal level throughout the performance; tempering overall sound levels via the use of earplugs and headphones or in some cases toning down or eliminating loud noises contained within the production; and allowing audience members to freely move about the theater during the performance.

In Bethesda, Md., Imagination Stage's Director of Access & Inclusion Diane Nutting helps a family into the theater, photo Erin Gifford, courtesy Imagination StageOthers strategies to help reduce behavioral triggers include the use of manipulatives or “fidgets” (small handheld  objects that keep hands busy while promoting focus and attention during performances); using added seat cushions to instill a greater sense of security; and designating theater quiet zones where families if needed, can take a break during the performance.

One of the most important strategies, says Carling, “is to create a welcoming environment where there is no need for parents to apologize or explain their autistic child’s behavior.” Those I interviewed for this article suggest not marketing these performances to the general public but to target those within the autism community and their families. They also suggest not filling every seat in the theater, rather they find that leaving some seats empty between groups of patrons allows the individuals with autism to be surrounded by people they know and trust.

For Ideishi, who has become the go-to guy for cultural organizations and institutions looking to do sensory-friendly/autism-friendly performance adaptations, of paramount importance is educating the theater staff about people with autism and social cognitive disorders and the common behaviors associated with those disorders. Ideishi recommends outlining with the staff communication and interaction strategies relevant to those patrons and briefing them on the modifications and adaptations made to create a sensory-friendly theater-going experience. Some of that same training can also be applied to preparing the production’s performers for what they may experience during a sensory-friendly/autism-friendly show.

Ideishi acts as a clinical advisor on PBT’s autism-friendly The Nutcracker production as well as for Bethesda, Maryland’s Imagination Stage and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he helped develop the center’s sensory friendly programming guidebook, an indispensable tool for any cultural organization looking to add sensory-friendly/autism-friendly performances to their offerings. The document covers a range of topics from how social and cognitive disabilities might manifest themselves in a performing arts setting to communication and marketing tips.

One thing the guidebook does not delve into is deciding which types of programming are more or less suitable for audience members on the autism spectrum or with social and cognitive disabilities.

The Kennedy Center for instance picks its programs in consultation with the local autism community such as parents of autistic children, teachers and other local professionals. The bulk of its sensory-friendly offerings have to date been family-friendly shows.

“For the 2013-2014 season we have six performances that are sensory-friendly. One chosen is the National Symphony Orchestra because autistic children really identify with music,” says Betty Siegel, the Kennedy Center’s director of VSA [Very Special Arts] and accessibility.

Family-friendly programs along with shows with familiar storylines and name recognition are popular choices with any audience and many lend themselves with few or no changes to be made sensory-friendly/autism-friendly. The key is avoiding or limiting changes to a production’s artistic integrity or watering down its theatrical experience.

Productions that don’t necessarily lend themselves well to a sensory-friendly/autism-friendly makeover are productions like STOMP, where behavioral triggers like startling noises and flashy lighting effects are integral to the production’s experience. Also, says Carling: “Adults on the spectrum tend to be literal thinkers” so shows with a lot of double-entendres such as a character saying they are going to “twist someone’s arm” or that they are “so angry they could kill someone,” tend to be perplexing to literal thinkers. Additionally, shows with a lot of repetitive motion don’t rank well with parents with autistic children. They have found that those tend to re-enforce unwanted repetitive motions in their children such as banging their heads against the floor.

During a performance of Peter Pan and Wendy at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md., the audience is left sparse for an autism-friendly environment, allowing for families and children with special needs to have their own space, photo Erin Gifford, courtesy Imagination StageIn dance performances, that may translate to works with a lot of lighting effects such as strobes and multiple blackouts, loud music, or perhaps characters acting out death scenes as in Romeo and Juliet. An expert consultant like Ideishi is often called in to determine if a production can be made to be sensory-friendly/autism-friendly and identify and suggest any changes to the production to make it so.

Another popular strategy cultural organizations are using to enhance the theater-going experience for children on the autism spectrum and their families, is the use of what are referred to as picture stories/social stories. Those consist of visual communication tools such as a sequence of photographs and text that detail the theater-going experience. By sending pre-visit picture stories/social stories to ticket buyers, family members or teachers can help an autistic child anticipate the theater-going experience visually, detailing the steps that will occur on their visit from waiting in line to pick up tickets at the box office, to getting to their seats, and the role of theater staff play in that process. Many organizations use similar picture story/social story handouts before a show to prepare children for what will happen during the performance experience. Those handouts can suggest what a child can do if he or she becomes startled or afraid, and include special instructions such as the use of a glow-stick by theater staff to indicate when a potentially disturbing point in the production, like a loud noise, is about to happen.

“Forecasting is really one of your biggest strategies,” says Diane Nutting, director of access and inclusion at Imagination Stage in Maryland. “The unknown can be really unsettling. Anything you can do to reduce that is helpful.”

While sensory-friendly/autism-friendly performances are on the rise, many cultural organizations and presenters remain wary of their profitability. Recent research showing such performances have been economically successful should help to allay those fears. The other big question for many is how to market such performances.

Those I interviewed say they rely on their local autism communities to spread the word. Most disseminate performance information through listservs, newsletters, email blasts and newsletters as well as through special education schools, school district special education offices and local organizations focusing on autism and social cognitive disorders.

While the goal of sensory-friendly/autism-friendly performances is to serve that select community, Nutting says at Imagination Stage they have become aware of a sort of reverse inclusion at their sensory-friendly performances. Parents of young children who are not on the autism spectrum have been using the performances to try out live theater outings in an atmosphere where they are not forced to leave if their kids get distracted, sing or move around.

Like most good ideas, sensory-friendly/autism-friendly dance performances are sure to spread throughout the dance community in the coming years. Just from hearing about Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s autism-friendly Nutcracker, Washington, D.C., area Connect the Dots Dance Company decided, says artistic director Amber Shriver, to present its own autism-friendly performance of its Nutcracker production December 7 at Luxmanor Elementary School in Bethesda, Md.

For those thinking about adding sensory-friendly/autism-friendly performances to their performance offerings Siegel says, “Go for it. It is one of the most rewarding things we have done [at The Kennedy Center]. To create an opportunity for children to participate in the arts is a truly rewarding thing.”

A former dancer turned writer/critic living in Ohio, Steve Sucato studied ballet and modern dance at the Erie Civic Ballet in Erie, Penn., and at Pennsylvania State University. He has performed numerous contemporary and classical works sharing the stage with noted dancers Robert LaFosse, Antonia Franceschi, Joseph Duell, Sandra Brown, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His writing credits include articles and reviews on dance and the arts for The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.), Erie Times-News (Erie, Penn.), Pittsburgh City Paper (Pittsburgh, Penn.) as well as magazines Pointe, Dance Studio Life, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, Stage Directions, Dance Retailer News, Dancer and webzines Balletco, DanceTabs, and Ballet-Dance Magazine/Critical Dance.


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