Musings: The Importance of Sensory-Friendly Performances

By Lauren Van Hemert

When my daughter was diagnosed with autism in 2013 (at the age of 10 years old), the world suddenly became a scary and lonely place. While we as a family were relieved to have a diagnosis, we were riddled with anxiety and fear over how to navigate simple everyday tasks like getting her in the car to go to school in the morning, going through a car wash, or even going out to eat, much less taking her places with large crowds like the theater. I can’t tell you how many times we would be out in public and people would stare. I would feel like they were judging me for being a bad parent because I couldn’t control my kid.

Most kids on the spectrum, like my daughter, can’t even go to school without being bullied, and for many families, the only safe place is at home.

So, to give kids with special needs and their families a safe, judgment free, public space in which they can be themselves, fidget freely, and experience something as joyful as going to the theatre is awesome.

I remember the first time we took our daughter to the circus. She really wanted to go, plus it was Girl Scout night and some of her troop members were going. When the show started, she curled up in a ball and put her hands over her ears. An usher even asked us if she was okay and offered us ear plugs (the orange soft, squishy kind you shove in your ears). The earplugs were uncomfortable and she ended up pulling them out of her ears and sitting quite miserably curled up in a ball, sometimes shielding her eyes from the lights, until intermission when I finally decided to take her home.

The next time, we got a little bit smarter. We reserved seats near an exit and scoped out quiet places in the arena where she could have a break from the noise. We even alerted the people around us that my daughter had autism and she might need to get up and leave in the middle. It made for a better but not perfect experience. Still, we did end up spending a good part of the time either in the bathroom or in the hall of the arena to escape the lights and noise.

At the third event, a production of School of Rock, we thought to bring my husband’s noise cancelling headphones. We again reserved seats on the aisle and scoped out the exits before the show began. She put the headphones on before the show started (to lots of stares and confusion I might add).  But it was the first show she ended up sitting all the way through and she thoroughly enjoyed herself thoroughly. To this day, it is one of her favorites.

Fast forward five years, she is an avid theater lover. And as she has gotten older, she has learned to self-soothe and copes with situations like going to the theater or watching a game in an arena. A lot of that has to do with having a quiet day or some downtime during the day of the performance as to not “fill her bucket” as she likes to say, knowing what to expect at any given event, and getting the constant reassurance from us that she will be okay. Still, when she was little since there were no sensory-friendly anything, my husband and I, usually through trial and error, had to come with the tools that would work for her in navigating social and group situations.

We all attended the Raleigh Little Theatre production of Alice@Wonderland last spring (because we had heard about them but never had attended one). We were both blown away by the built-in accommodations RLT offered to families, including making fidget balls and headphones available to kids who may need them. There was even a staffed chillax area in the lobby, for families if they needed an escape from the noise or lights. The accommodations it took us show up and enjoy the inclusive experience.

What I’ve learned along the way, is that positive experiences like these, not only provide a fun afternoon out, but also do so much more for kids like my daughter and families like mine.

First, in my experience, taking my daughter to the theater and having a positive experience gave her and my whole family a point of reference and the confidence to navigate other social and group situations. As my mom says, “success breeds success,” so one successful outing or experience will often lead to another.

Second, and more importantly, for us, exposing our daughter to the arts, served as a springboard to conversation and dialogue. We could talk about the story, the play, the concert and work on communication skills in the process. And for my daughter, being able to talk about stories or plays that feature a protagonist who overcomes great odds, like she has, is a bonus. Those are some of her favorite stories and ones she could talk about nonstop, believe me.

Finally, in my experience interviewing theater people for Broadway World and RDU on Stage, the one common thing I hear from performers and directors alike in almost every single interview I do, is that the theater teaches empathy. Writing about sensory-friendly experiences, training the volunteers who staff these kinds of experiences, much like Arts Access does, and inviting the public to enjoy these experiences with their atypical peers, as Raleigh Little Theatre is doing this season with all of their family productions, not only teaches empathy, but who knows, maybe it could lead to less bullying of these kids in school or fewer people casting judgment or staring when your kid has a meltdown in public, or maybe it could just make our community a kinder place.

Raleigh Little Theatre will present sensory-friendly performances of the following shows:

  • March 2nd – Junie B. Jones, the Musical
  • March 30th – Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds
  • February 9, 2020 – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

For more information, visit the Raleigh Little Theatre website. Be sure to also listen to the RDU on Stage podcast on sensory-friendly performances featuring Raleigh Little Theatre’s Executive Director Charles Phaneuf and Arts Access Executive Director Betsy Ludwig.

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