Speech to the Raleigh Civitans with RLT’s Charles Phaneuf on the Case for Sensory-Friendly Performances

On September 8th, I was honored to speak to the Raleigh Civitans, with Raleigh Little Theatre’s Charles Phaneuf and Arts Access’ Executive Director Betsy Ludwig on the importance of sensory-friendly performances. Here is a transcript of my speech.

This season RLT is including a sensory-friendly performance for EVERY show in their family series starting with ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’ November 3rd. For their performance schedule, visit https://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows-and-events/.

When my daughter was diagnosed with autism in 2013 (at the age of 10 years old), 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. I would feel like they were judging me for being a bad parent because I couldn’t control my kid. One friend of mine even suggested I print up autism awareness cards to hand out to bystanders.

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 awesome.

I remember the first time we took our daughter to the circus. She really wanted to go, and it was Girl Scout night and some of her troop members were going. When the show started, she curled up in a ball and put her hands over her ears. An usher even asked us if she was okay and offered us ear plugs (the orange soft kind you shove in your ears). The earplugs were uncomfortable for her and she ended up pulling them out of her ears and sitting quite miserably curled up with her hands over her ears,sometimes shielding her eyes from the lights, until intermission when I finally decided to take her home.

The next time, we got a little bit smarter. We reserved seats near an exit and scoped out quiet places in the arena where she could have a break from the noise. We even alerted the people around us that my daughter had autism and she might need to get up and leave in the middle. It made for a better but not perfect experience, and we did end up spending a good part of the time either in the bathroom or in the hall of the arena to escape the lights and noise.

At the third event, a production of School of Rock, we thought to bring my husband’s noise cancelling headphones. We again reserved seats on the aisle and scoped out the exits before the show began. She put the headphones on before the show started (to lots of stares and confusion I might add).  But it was the first show she ended up sitting all the way through and she thoroughly enjoyed herself. To this day, it is one of her favorites.

Fast forward a few years and she is an avid theater lover. And as she has gotten older, she has learned to self-soothe and cope with situations like going to the theater or watching a game in an arena. A lot of that has to do with having a quiet day or some down time during the day of the performance as to not “fill her bucket” as she likes to say, knowing what to expect at any given event, and the constant reassurance from us that she will be okay. Still, when she was little since there were no sensory-friendly anything, it took us years to come up with the hacks and tools that worked for her.

Our whole family attended the Raleigh Little Theatre production of Alice@Wonderland last spring (because we had heard about them but never had attended one). We were both blown away by the built-in accommodationsRLT offered to families, including making fidget balls and headphones available to kids who may need them. There was even a staffed chillax area in the lobby, for families if they needed an escape from the noise or lights. The accommodations it took us years to figure out, were right there so all families had to do was show up and enjoy the inclusive experience.

What I’ve learned along the way, is that positive experiences like these, not only provide a fun afternoon out but also do so much more for kids like my daughter and families like mine.

1st) In my experience, taking my daughter to the theater and having a positive experience gave her and my whole family a point of reference and the confidence to navigate other social and group situations. As my mom says, success breeds success, so one successful outing or experience will often lead to another.

2nd) More importantly, for us, exposing our daughter to the arts, served as a springboard to conversation and dialogue. We could talk about the story, the play, the concert and work on communication skills in the process. And for my daughter, being able to talk about stories or plays that feature a protagonist who overcomes great odds, like she has, is a bonus. Those are some of her favorite stories and ones she could talk about nonstop. Another great example of this is the story of best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind, who 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 is beautifully documented in Suskind’s book Life Animated and the documentary of the same name. Once the Suskind family unlocked that key to communication, they were able to essentially form a relationship with their non-verbal child. And opening the line of communication between an autistic child (non-verbal like the Suskind’sor high functioning like my daughter) is more precious than gold.

3rd) Finally, in my experience interviewing theater people for Broadway World, the one common thread I hear from performers and directors alike in almost every single interview I do, is that the theater teaches empathy. Talking to groups like you about sensory-friendly experiences, training the volunteers who staff these kinds of experiences, and inviting the public to enjoy these experiences with their atypical peers not only teaches empathy, but who knows, maybe it could lead to less bullying of these kids in school or fewer people casting judgment or staring when your kid has a meltdown in public, or maybe it could just make our community a kinder place.

For more information on Arts Access volunteer opportunities and inclusive events, visit https://artsaccessinc.org/. For more information on the Civitans organization, visit https://www.capitalcitycivitan.net/index.html.


Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism– Book by Ron Suskind

Website: www.lifeanimated.net

Documentary: http://www.lifeanimateddoc.com/film/

(available on Amazon Prime)

What Would You Do? ABC Segment of Autistic Child in a Café http://blog.theautismsite.com/abcs-what-would-you-do-autism-segment/

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