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TDF: Autism-Friendly Broadway Performances

TDF: Autism-Friendly Broadway Performances

Going to a Broadway show is a quintessential New York City experience, one that families of children with Autism don’t always get a chance to enjoy. Broadway musicals can be overwhelming to individuals on the spectrum, and families struggle to find ways to make the theatergoing experience enjoyable for their children and themselves.

The Autism Theatre Initiative, a division of the Theatre Development Fund, is changing all of that with their autism-friendly performances of Broadway shows.

The first autism-friendly performance was a production of The Lion King on October 2, 2011, followed the next year with Mary Poppins, and soon after by Spiderman: Turn off the Dark and Elf. This coming March will have the premiere of an autism-friendly production of Wicked, and April will introduce the autism- friendly production of Disney Junior Live on Tour! Pirate & Princess Adventure.

TDF arranges the autism-friendly performances with the producers of Broadway shows. When deciding on shows to offer to individuals on the spectrum, the Autism Theatre Initiative looks at criteria including content, family-friendliness, and the size of the theater space.

“We want to make sure that the content appeals to individuals on the spectrum with a wide variety of ages so that older and younger individuals can enjoy the show,” says Phillip Dallman, TDF’s Autism Theatre Initiative Coordinator, on a recent visit to BAC. “But we also want to make sure that the show appeals to the families as well.”

The theater space is an important contributing factor in choosing shows for autism-friendly performances. Providing a quiet activity space for children is essential in case they feel overwhelmed by the theater experience, and these activity spaces are staffed by autism specialists who provide support to the families.

“In the past, about twenty kids have used [the quiet activity places], but parents love to know that it’s there in case they need it.”

To prepare the audience for the performance, the Autism Theatre Initiative creates downloadable social narratives with information about the show and sends them home to families. These social narratives are customized for each play and include pictures of the theater space and 3-sentence descriptions of each important character in the show. Families can also edit their own information into the social narratives before the show.

A great deal of thought goes into the creation of each social narrative and attention is paid to each detail. For the character guides for The Lion King, the social narratives included pictures of the cartoon characters side-by-side with their stage character counterparts. Parents are also provided with special warnings about potentially problematic aspects of different shows – caution about the flying monkeys in Wicked that might frighten some patrons, for instance – and given links to the cast albums so that the individuals with Autism can listen to the music ahead of time.

While many accommodations are made to ensure that individuals with Autism and their families can enjoy the play, the Autism Theatre Initiative does not make any changes in the content of the show itself. Some of the technical aspects of the show might be altered – “We might eliminate strobe lights, put the house lights at half, and make sure there are no sounds above 90 decibels,” says Dallman, “but no content in the show is changed. They’re seeing the same show as everyone else.”

The Broadway shows that have included autism-friendly performances in previous years are The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Spiderman Turn off the Dark, and Elf. This coming March will have the premiere of an autism-friendly production of Wicked, and April will introduce the autism-friendly production of Disney Junior Live on Tour.

After a run of successful Broadway performances, the Autism Theatre Initiative is looking to expand its scope to make the theater-going experience even more welcoming to families. Next on the horizon, under consideration: a restaurant partnership to give families with Autism an enjoyable dining experience after the conclusion of the Broadway performance. TDF is also reaching out to group homes, hoping to include more adults on the spectrum in its audiences

The ultimate goal of the Autism Theatre Initiative is to provide a stress-free, enjoyable, full theater-going experience, before, during and after the show. “This is a chance for families, adults, and children affected by Autism to have a completely judgment-free day. They can relax, enjoy the people they’re with, and enjoy the show in front of them. That’s what theater accessibility is all about.”