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For children, seeing their first live theater or dance performance can be an exhilarating experience. But for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), going to the theater can be uncomfortable. This has led theaters across the country to start producing “sensory-friendly” performances geared towards children with ASD.
Starting in February, the Northwest Children’s Theater (NWCT) will begin its run of “Goodnight Moon,” the classic children’s story by Margaret Wise Brown, about a child who says goodnight to every single thing in his room while getting ready for bed. Two of the performances will be sensory-friendly productions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 88 people have been diagnosed with ASD. It is five times more common in boys (1 in 54) than girls (1 in 252). During the last decade or two, the number of children diagnosed with ASD has skyrocketed.
According to Autism Speaks, ASD is “a set of complex disorders of brain development … characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.” Families can find managing ASD-related behaviors in their children a challenge, especially in environments like the theater. Staying still and quiet at certain times can be nearly impossible. Bright or rapidly changing lights and noises can be distracting. All of this could impact when or if parents introduce their children to the wonderful world of theater.
NWCT’s Marketing and Development Director, Nick Fenster, says that their Artistic Director, Sarah Jane Hardy, began thinking about how to create sensory-friendly productions after several people expressed to her that they felt unable to take their autistic children to live performances.
“She further researched autism and live performance and found that the Kennedy Center had recommendations on how theater companies could modify their shows to make them more accessible,” said Fenster.
In 2011, the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) launched the Autism Theatre Initiative, a program designed to help make the theatre accessible for people with ASD. It produced the first autism-friendly performance of a Broadway show, “The Lion King,” in October 2011. A second autism-friendly production, “Mary Poppins,” was presented in April 2012 and another production of “The Lion King” in September 2013. Since then, more theatres across the country have produced autism-friendly productions, including The Boston Conservatory, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, The Hobby Center in Houston, Texas, and The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, California.
In 2013, The Kennedy Center published a guidebook, “Sensory Friendly Programming for People with Social and Cognitive Disabilities: A Guide for Performing Arts Settings.” In the introduction, it notes that society often has expectations of how people should act in certain settings. When people with ASD act differently in these situations, such as the theatre, they are at risk for not being welcomed in these places. The purpose of the guidebook is to help theatre companies create show adaptations that “create a welcoming environment for persons with sensory, social and learning needs.”
Fenster says “Goodnight Moon” is a short, simple story that is the perfect fit for NWCT’s first sensory-friendly production because it could be adapted with less modification.
“Even so, the sensory-friendly performances will be very different from the rest of the run, featuring a much shorter run-time, no intermission, less dramatic lighting and sounds, and the constant presence of house lights to prevent black-outs between scenes,” Fenster said.
NWCT’s two sensory-friendly performances of “Goodnight Moon” will be February 22 and March 1, both at noon. For more information, go to www.nwcts.org or call 503-222-2190.