Relaxed theater performances for kids with sensory sensitivity – coming to Philly

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    Picture Courtesy Bigstock "Sensory Trigger"

    Do you remember the first play or musical that you ever saw?

    Mine was a community theater production of “The Princess and the Pea” that my grandmother took my sister and me to see (I was 4 and she was 6). I still can recall holding my grandmother’s hand when the theater lights went down and the magic of watching the actors bring the story to life.

    From the time my son George, 14, was born, I looked forward to the time that he and I could share the experience of live theater. However, when George was 2 years old, he began to show intense reactions — crying, screaming and even fleeing — to environments that were especially loud or visually overwhelming (think shopping mall at holiday time).

    By 3, he was diagnosed with autism, and along with the communication and social delays that were challenging his ability to function without a lot of support, we learned that he, like many people on the autism spectrum, also had sensory-processing difficulties.

    George started working with occupational therapists to help him address his sensory issues … but that process is not a quick-fix solution and it has only been over time that he’s been able to better tolerate being in places with loud music and crowds. George is non-verbal and communicates his needs and interests through a communication device, but he is not yet able to express his anxieties except through his behavior (such as by leaving). We’ve had to be extremely proactive in helping George prepare for and adjust to settings outside of his places of comfort — home and school.Our experience is very common for families raising children with autism — and others who are sensory sensitive and are individuals with other neurologicaldifferences such as ADHD, social anxiety, OCD, and agoraphobia. Life for us can feel restricted and isolated; when George was younger, simple trips to the grocery store could be over-stimulating. I couldn’t conceive of how we’d ever take George to see a play or musical.

    Fortunately, the theater community has become increasingly aware and proactive about creating “sensory-friendly” or “relaxed” performances of shows for families like mine. In the Delaware valley, a cohort of six arts organizations including Delaware Theatre Company, McCarter Theatre Center, Montgomery Theater, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, People’s Light, and Theatre Horizon have received a grant from Theatre Communications Group (TCG) to address accessibility and inclusivity needs by offering 10-12 “Relaxed Performances” over the next two years.

    This week Theater Horizon will offer a relaxed performance of Hero School, a fully-interactive children’s theater performance on August 15th. KC MacMillan, Guest Artistic Director of Theater Horizon, shared about what the performance will be like. “Theatre Horizon has offered an Autism Drama program, with programs serving both kids and adults, for many seasons. Angela Coleman, our Director of Theatre School & Community Programs, has been an in-house expert for the production team on ways to make the show a positive experience for audience with sensory differences,” she shared. “We have partnered with a number of area theaters who also offered relaxed performances this season. Experts from the cohort have walked through the show and given us their recommendations.”

    Theater Horizon has adjusted sound levels and softened sudden sounds or events, and Autism drama specialists will walk through the show during these performances to let participants know what will happen next and where they are going as they move through the building.  They will have a relaxing-zone for anyone who needs a break. They have created a Preparation Packet with details on the show, for any caregiver who would like to prepare their super hero in advance.

    For info on the performance or tickets, visit http://theatrehorizon.org/shows/heroschool.php.

    What has your experience been taking your kids with sensory sensitivity to the theater? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below or share with me on twitter @gabkaplanmayer.

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