Arts Groups Offer 'Sensory-Friendly' Performances for People with Autism

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At a recent performance of "Catch Me! (Attrape-Moi),” a circus show at the New Victory Theater, performers hurtled through the air while others bounced on a “Trampowall." One spun a dozen hula hoops simultaneously. But missing were a few ingredients: thumping music, shouted commands and brash strobe lights that typically accompany these performances. The house lights were left partly up and a "calming corner" was set up in the lobby, where families could take a break on cushions.

The theatergoers were attending a “sensory-friendly” performance aimed particularly at young people with autism. The troupe, Flip FabriQue, from Quebec, agreed to modify this evening's performance at the request of the New Victory. The theater is one of a growing number of arts venues offering programs for families affected by autism spectrum disorder, a condition that can involve many sensory challenges, including hypersensitivity to light and sound.

Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a theater-goer at the Flip Fabrique performance, said she previously shied away from taking her nine-year-old son, Norrin, who has autism, to a theater. "It's always been difficult to navigate a regular show just because I don’t want to disturb other people," she said. "It can be stressful, it can be overwhelming."

Quinones-Fontanez, who also runs Atypical Familia, a website for parents with autistic children, said she particularly appreciated the New Victory’s attention to certain details, like family restrooms and the ability to preview seats ahead of time. Other patrons aren't judgmental if Norrin squirms or makes noise.

Patrons at the New Victory Theater's autism-friendly performance.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s disability and requires that facilities, including concert halls, be readily accessible to them. But while wheelchair ramps and accessible drinking fountains have long been commonplace, until recently, there were few performances for special-needs children. Several arts centers—often in collaboration with nonprofit groups like Music for Autism or the Theater Development Fund—are beginning to cater to what was once a marginalized community.

"So many people now are able to self-advocate and say ‘I would really love to participate, but I need these special accommodations,’” said Lilaia Kairis, who manages the New Victory Theater’s sensory-friendly programming. “That’s where community groups and nonprofits can meet them halfway.” The New Victory Theater works with Autism Friendly Spaces, a New York nonprofit, to establish parameters for the four sensory-friendly performances it offers each season. 

Customizing the Experience

For orchestras, autism-friendly performances can be a way to demonstrate their value to a society that can regard classical music simply as a pastime for the wealthy elite. In 2011, the New Jersey Symphony received $15,000 grant from the Getty Foundation to start an outreach program in schools and community centers for children and adults with autism. After piloting chamber music concerts in Mercer County, it expanded last year to Essex County, and now involves 12 schools. A full orchestra concert is being planned for next spring.

Marshell Jones Kumahor, the NJSO’s vice president of education and community engagement, acknowledges that the program has its limits. “We don’t subscribe to the idea that this is going to change a kid on the spectrum, or make someone speak who hasn't spoken before, because the research isn't compelling enough,” she said. Rather, the orchestra sees the concerts as both a community-building effort and, for its mostly young listeners, a behavior reinforcement tool — a way to "entice young people to tackle something that may be challenging for them."

An analysis of ten academic studies last year found that music therapy may help children with autism spectrum disorder to improve their skills in social interaction and communication, but the research stressed that it requires specialized clinical training – well beyond the scope of most arts groups' resources.

That being said, Jones Kumahor says the NJSO has its programs vetted by experts who can prepare the musicians. “It has not been a hard sell [to musicians] because we were able to provide the training on an annual basis,” she said. “Of course, no one wants to be thrown into a situation they're not prepared for.” An orchestra-produced video shows a 2013 performance by assistant principal cellist Stephen Fang and violist Michael Stewart for the Irvington Public Schools:


Music's Benefits

Holly Hamilton, a violinist in the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, developed a sensory-friendly program at the Kennedy Center. Her son Clark Patterson, 31, has an intellectual disability as well as visual and hearing impairments. But he also enjoys going to his mother’s concerts at Wolf Trap, an outdoor venue where he could sit in the back and applaud or playfully conduct along without causing a disturbance. This convinced Hamilton that there was more that could be done for children with special needs. 

“What surprised me is how open the kids are into the music,” she said in a phone interview. “Some of them are nonverbal but their eyes light up. You can always get a good reaction from them.” The Kennedy Center began giving autism-friendly performances in 2012 and now presents four to five such performances annually. One Kennedy Center staff member described these as "no-shushing shows and no-judgment zones."

Adam Benson, Psy.D, is a child psychologist with a private practice in Greenwich Village and has treated children on the autism spectrum. He believes sensory-friendly performances can particularly help families who face social stigmas. “It’s a great opportunity for them to actually do something ‘normal’ with their children where they’re not getting looked at by other adults that typically judge them,” he said. "A lot of times they think their children are out of control and they’re not controlling their children.”

At the New Victory Theater performance, kids giggled at the slapstick humor by Flip FabriQue but also grew noticeably quiet during several high-flying aerial routines. Emmanuel DelGado, an usher at the theater, described the atmosphere as less hectic than a typical children’s concert. “The biggest difference is you have to be a little more patient,” he said. “You have to be friendly and warm and inviting. A lot of times they’re friendlier than the average person who walks in.”