Making Theater Autism-Friendly

Reduced sounds, brighter lights, and an opportunity to learn about the show ahead of time make plays a more pleasant experience for those with autism. But the most important thing is a non-judgmental environment.

The New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd street is located in the heart of Times Square. A woman marches her young son through the crowds of tourists and aggressive cartoon characters, and stops in front of the large sign for Aladdin, the Disney Broadway musical. On a typical weekend, she says they would not be here; she would not even bring her son to Times Square. Her son’s eyes are averted as they stand at the front of the line, waiting to get in the theater. He fidgets with his backpack. But he is bouncing up and down. “He’s excited,” she explains, smiling. “He’s on the spectrum, so we only take him to autism-friendly shows.” They were there for a special “autism-friendly” performance of Aladdin, coordinated by the Autism Theatre Initiative (ATI) in early March. The ATI says the approximately 1,500 seats for this performance of Aladdin sold out in five hours when it released tickets on its website.

For the past five years, major movie theaters and sports arenas have offered autism-friendly programs, where the lighting is brighter, the sound is turned down, and the audience is encouraged to move around and make noise, with professional support at hand. But theater has recently opened up to this audience, too, with the ATI pioneering the first autism-friendly Broadway musical in 2011 with The Lion King. There is large demand, especially in New York’s tri-state area—according to a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, one in 68 U.S. children has an autism-spectrum disorder (ASD), with the highest concentration (one in 45 children) in the state of New Jersey.

Lisa Carling, director of the Theatre Development Fund’s (TDF) Accessibility Programs, which launched the ATI in 2011, says that the idea for coordinating autism-friendly performances arose partly from hearing about parents’ negative experiences trying to bring their children with autism to theater directed at a general audience. “Stimming,” which is self-stimulatory, repetitive behavior that is sometimes a symptom of autism—such as flapping hands, rocking back and forth, making repeated sounds, or repeating the same thing—would draw complaints from other audience members. Snacks and fidget toys were usually not allowed. One parent, Carling says, told her she had been asked to leave a regular Chicago show halfway when her son would not stop singing along loudly with the music. He left in tears. “Audience members just turn on this person with special needs, thinking their [own] experience is more important,” says Philip Dallmann, who coordinates the ATI.

What exactly makes a performance “autism-friendly?” For every show—ATI has had four this season—the organization relies on two trained autism specialists and one individual with autism to provide criticism on the original show. The ATI then works with the producer to incorporate suggested criticisms. Major changes to the show usually address sound, lights, and noise. Many individuals with autism can be sensitive to light and sound, and some are prone to epileptic reactions in the presence of strobe lights. To accommodate these potential needs, sound in the show is capped at 90 decibels. Strobe lights are cut. Surprising elements like sudden blackouts are toned down. House lights are increased by 30 percent. Advance notice of all scenes in the show with significant noises or lights is given to parents and caregivers in special guides to the performance. For example, in Aladdin, the audience knew to watch out for the voice of the Cave of Wonders. Firework effects were kept, but with the sound reduced. With the house lights on, the magic carpet still swooshed magically above the children, who clapped, jumped, and waved.

The script is never changed. “Our goal is always to maintain the integrity of the show. Even with certain lights and sounds, we’ll veer on the side of giving the audience a warning about it, rather than changing it, if it’s something that’s essential to the show,” Dallmann says. “We want them to see the same show as their classmates and peers.” The ATI negotiates a price with the producer before buying up one show, and Carling says the organization tries to keep it heavily discounted for families, from 40 to 50 percent off. It offers 200 seats free to low-income New York City schoolchildren and their caregivers through donors. “We are very cognizant of the fact that families raising kids and adults on the spectrum have enormous expenses connected with that individual, and we try to make the tickets as affordable as possible for those families,” Carling says.

Ticket sales are announced only over the ATI’s email list, which currently has 7,500 members. The online seating chart shows the location of speakers in the theater, and the incline of areas like the balcony—relevant information that is not automatically provided in the typical theater ticket-buying experience. All ticket-buyers are sent a “social narrative” of the show, a preparatory script for children with autism to help them understand what to expect. The social narrative for Aladdin showed the Disney and on-stage actor picture for each character, as well as a description of his or her role in the show. It provided a summary of the show for children and their families. The ATI also recently released a social narrative video called “Getting to the Theater,” to prepare children and families for the sometimes jarring walk through Times Square to the theater.

Every autism-friendly show is staffed with at least 30 volunteers who are either autism specialists or have had personal experience working with people with autism. They hand out stress balls that children can use as fidget toys, they help families find the elevators and special family-accessible bathrooms, and they direct children who need to leave the show to special “quiet areas” where they can play with toys, draw and color, or sit still. The volunteers also have earplugs and noise-canceling headphones to hand out to children who want to see the show without experiencing the noise. “We are expecting all of the behaviors that may happen in the day, and we welcome them,” says Tessa Hersh, one of the autism specialists working with the ATI and training volunteers for Aladdin.

Cast and house staff members are also trained in advance to know what to expect. A staple of this training is a pre-show speech by Harry Smolin, the TDF's 16-year-old consultant who provides the perspective of someone with an autism diagnosis who is also an avid theatergoer. "My experience with TDF has shown me me that I can use my autism to help people enjoy the theater as much as I do,” Smolin says. He tells the cast and staff, “One of the biggest problems I have is that I don’t like the unexpected. The more information you give me ahead [of time], the less likely it is that anything will upset me….If the show is going to start five or more minutes late, you should make an announcement and tell the people not to worry.”

The actress Lesli Margherita, who played Matilda’s mother Mrs. Wormwood in the musical Matilda, said she enjoyed the experience of acting for an energetic and unique audience when they put on an autism-friendly show in February. “We were warned that maybe some kids might throw things on the stage, and it happened a couple of times, but we were very well-prepared for it, and for us, it meant that they were engaging,” she said. “Matilda is a story of a child who sees the world differently, and it was absolutely important for us to tell the story to kids who also see the world differently.” After the show, the cast members come out for a special Q&A with the audience. The ATI also works with local restaurants to ensure autism-friendly dining experiences for families going out to eat in Times Square after the show.

While the ATI gets children with autism excited about watching theater in New York City, there are other groups that allow them to engage in acting in small theater productions of their own. Public schools in New York City received funding from entertainment-executive couple Freddie and Myrna Gershon in 2013 to implement and track the effects of a musical theater program for autistic children, which was profiled in the 2014 documentary Spectrum of Hope. The Miracle Project, an organization that uses inclusive theater and expressive arts programs to improve social skills and self-esteem in individuals with autism, also did a documentary about theater therapy in students with autism called Autism: the Musical.

Blythe Corbett, an assistant professor and clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University who specializes in pediatric neuropsychology, has conducted research on the effects of a theater-based form of therapy for children with autism. She developed the SENSE (“Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology”) Theatre program, a 10-session program over two weeks in the summer or 10 weeks in the winter that pairs children with autism with neurotypical peers to rehearse, produce and act in a show. She assesses and measures traits like facial recognition, perspective-building, socializing, and stress level prior to the program start and after it ends. Corbett’s research, published in the journal Autism Research in 2014, has shown that engaging in this peer-mediated theatre program yielded significant improvement in face processing, social awareness, and social cognition, as well as duration of interaction with familiar peers.

One theater group focused on young adults with autism that operates in New York, the Backyard Players and Friends, has become a devoted audience for the ATI’s autism-friendly shows. Ellen White, director and founder of this weekly group, brings at least 20 members with special needs to each autism-friendly show. When one student started to panic about the steep balcony in the New Amsterdam Theatre, White whispered to her a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” The girl got to her seat successfully and beamed with pride. “Being able to travel together in a group and have that confidence and self-awareness to get us through the city, to the safe space of the theater, is amazing,” White says. One student took such an interest in trip planning that he now coordinates all travel for the students and chaperones, with an attention to detail that even allowed them their own car on the Long Island Railroad.

Children on the spectrum are starting to anticipate the next time they’ll be able to go to an autism-friendly performance. “What show is going to be next?” asked one 14-year-old girl as she waited to be let into the theater for Aladdin. “I want to see West Side Story!”

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.