The ATI has mainly focused on adapting musicals, but last year, the organization put on its first autism-friendly play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The play itself is from the perspective of a child with autism, and attracted an older audience of individuals on the spectrum. The ATI has anecdotal feedback from surveys and conversations that indicate the program’s impact. “We get a lot of emails that say, ‘My son doesn’t usually talk to his siblings, but he keeps bragging to his brother and sister about the show,’” Dallmann says. The ATI hopes to find a way to measure and track this impact. Corbett has not done research on the impact of viewing theater for children with autism, but she expects that it is positive, based on the existing skill-building technique of video modeling, where children watch video demonstrations of behavior and then learn to imitate them. “Instead of looking at video or television like they often do at home, if our children on the spectrum are able to embrace and to observe social communication in this broader, wider, and live context, that’s very valuable,” Corbett says.
According to Michael Rosen, the executive vice president of strategic communications at Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization, “it helps decrease stress levels to get people with autism out of the house and out of normal routines, to go out and have a special experience with their families.” Rosen has a 27-year-old son with autism who is non-verbal. His son has attended many of the ATI’s autism-friendly shows. “Now my son gets excited when he sees Broadway marquees, and a while ago, he didn’t really know what they were,” Rosen says. “He loves it. He starts rocking back and forth and humming because he knows the music so well, and it’s just so comfortable.” Dallmann says that there have been instances where those who attend autism-friendly shows are able to transition to attending shows aimed at a general audience. “I think we are one of the only programs that says ‘Yes, please leave us,’ for all the right reasons,” Dallmann says.
The concept of an autism-friendly theater environment is slowly spreading across the U.S. and in Europe, sometimes dubbed a “sensory-friendly” or “relaxed” performance. Since the show does not change many elements and the cast usually only needs one special rehearsal for it, Dallmann says the main thing preventing more autism-friendly shows is negotiating the cost. With more donors and greater cooperation from producers on the budget, the ATI hopes to be able to put on more shows. “Access doesn’t have to be this overwhelming costly endeavor,” Dallmann says. “You are making money long-term as a producer … you’re not just getting that individual with autism, you’re getting that whole family.” One 8-year-old girl who stopped by the quiet play area whispered, “Just so you know, I don’t have autism, my brother does.” She pointed across the room at him. “But I’ve seen all the autism-friendly shows!”
Perhaps the most invaluable part of these shows is the non-judgmental environment created by an audience of people with similar experiences. As the show was about to start, one young man starting yelling and shaking from side to side. As his mother tried to calm him, his father put his hand on her shoulder and smiled.
“In this crowd, maybe no one even notices,” he said.