Why Making Arts Accessible Matters

Last Saturday, I attended Raleigh Little Theatre’s sensory-friendly performance of Alice@Wonderland. Subsequently, I wrote an article for Broadway World about my experience. And while it is evident that I applaud Raleigh Little Theatre’s efforts to make the arts accessible to special needs kids, I don’t think it’s evident in my Broadway World piece as to why that matters.

When my daughter was diagnosed with autism in February 2013, the world suddenly became a scary and lonely place. While we as a family were relieved to have a diagnosis, we were riddled with anxiety and fear over how to navigate simple everyday tasks like getting her in the car to go to school in the morning, going through a car wash, or even going out to eat, much less taking her places with large crowds like the theater. I can’t tell you how many times we would be out in public and people would stare. One friend of mine even suggested I print up autism awareness cards to hand out to bystanders in public to explain my daughter’s outbursts or challenging behavior. Check out this segment from the ABC Show “What Would You Do?” that shows the challenges faced by one family dining out with their autistic son.

Most kids on the spectrum, like my daughter, can’t even go to school without being bullied, and for many families, the only safe place is at home.

So to give kids with special needs and their families a safe, judgment free, public space in which they can be themselves, fidget freely, and experience something as joyful as going to the theatre, is in the words of Raleigh Little Theatre’s (RLT’s) young Alice, awesome.

During a sensory-friendly performance, accommodations are made to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. Slight adjustments to the production are made, including reduction of any jarring sounds or strobe and spot lights that shine into the audience. House lights are faintly dimmed but remain on. Quiet and activity areas staffed with autism specialists are available in the lobby areas for those who need to leave their seats during the performance.

At RLT’s sensory-friendly performance last weekend, headphones were available to borrow, as were fidget balls, the house lights were kept on, and RLT staff sat at the front of the theater with glow sticks to signal a sudden sound of lighting change.

While sensory-friendly performances may be new to the Triangle, they aren’t a new concept. In 2011, the Theatre Development Fund launched The Autism Theatre Initiative by teaming up with Disney’s The Lion King  to offer the first ever autism-friendly performance of a Broadway show. This season, five Broadway shows offered a sensory-friendly performance, including Come From Away, Aladdin, Wicked, Cats and The Lion King. Each one of these performances sold out.

It has been my experience that exposing special needs kids to the arts gives them an outlet in which they can express themselves. Many kids on the spectrum are non-verbal, and the arts can provide a vehicle for self-soothing, as well as a means of socializing, connecting and communicating with others. Check out Iris Grace’s original paintings. Iris is a nine year old on the spectrum who spent most of her early years not speaking. However, she was able to express herself at an early age by painting impressionist-style masterpieces. Ron Suskind watched his autistic son Owen slip away into silence at an early age and turned to Disney movies as a vehicle for connecting and communicating with him. Their story, beautifully documented in the book Life Animated and the documentary of the same name, shows, according to their website, “how, in darkness, we literally need stories to survive.”

13502091_10209776369754049_1965145968844071739_nRaleigh Little Theatre collaborated with Arts Access and trained their staff last April on how to put on a sensory-friendly performance and will continue offering sensory-friendly shows during next season’s family series, which includes, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Junie B. Jones, and Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. Theatre Raleigh and Theatre in the Park are also planning to include sensory-friendly performances in their line ups. I believe the impact of these sensory-friendly experiences will reach far beyond these performances.

As for my daughter, nowadays she loves going to the theater. She particularly loves shows where the protagonist overcomes great odds (much like she has). Her favorite musical hands down is Matilda. Here’s one of my favorite photos of her jumping for joy (literally) in front of The Cambridge Theatre where Matilda is playing in London’s West End.

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