Sensory-friendly performances accommodate all audiences
Seven-year-old Keegan McNulty of Franklin Lakes enjoys going to the movies and to theater performances. His family loves going with him. That is noteworthy because Keegan is autistic and it would be difficult for him to sit through and enjoy those shows without the accommodations made by sensory-friendly performances. A number of venues in the area present films and performances specially adapted to ensure that children with autism who are sensitive to new routines and loud noises, among other things, can enjoy the shows with their families.
So far, Keegan has seen two movies at AMC Loews Wayne 14, as well as two musicals: The Little Mermaid at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, and Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark at the Foxwoods Theatre in New York City.
“I am so appreciative of the organizations that make sensory accommodations to performances for our children,” Keegan’s mom, Stephanie, says. “They allow our children and us (as a family) to experience such fabulous community activities that they would otherwise never enjoy.”
Sonali Ganti, director of community outreach for Caring Kids, an organization affiliated with the Millburn-Short Hills PTOC, has an 11-year-old son with autism. She lives in Short Hills and proposed sensory-friendly shows at Paper Mill Playhouse a couple years ago. She is thrilled with the response.
“They went above and beyond,” Ganti says.
According to Lisa Cooney, director of education at Paper Mill Playhouse, once the idea was proposed, the play- house contacted experts, including Autism NJ and Rutgers’ Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center. They also brought in the Pushcart Players, a theater company that was open and able to amend its performances to be sensory friendly.
The first step was to make the shows shorter in duration. The performances are just one hour with an intermission. In addition, the lights are never turned all the way off, and the sound is lowered.
“Just as important as lowering the sound,” Cooney says, “is keeping it steady so that there are no jarring noises to upset the audience.” There is also a liberal policy about talking and walking around. “Kids just enjoy being here, but it is the parents who bring kids who really appreciate it.”
The theater supplies a preview book titled “This is My Theater” to help prepare children ahead of time. There are also volunteers to assist families at performances. And perhaps most important, Paper Mill Playhouse holds an open house called “Meet Your Seat” on a day before the performance. Anxiety is relieved for the children when they can see the space ahead of time. Upcoming productions are
Seussical on April 25 and Disney’s
Aladdin Jr. on June 14. Another venue for special shows is the Theatre Development Fund. TDF started the Autism Theatre Initiative in 2011 to make Broadway shows accessible to children and adults on the autism spectrum, along with their families. According to the TDF website, accommodations include reduction of jarring noises and lights. There are also quiet areas and an activity area.
While McNulty is incredibly positive about both theater experiences, she says there are two “best things” that helped Keegan at the theater performances. First was the “social story” supplied through an online link – a book with pictures that prepares theatergoers ahead of time.
“They both included pictures of the theaters,” she says, “so we could read about and see where we were going. We printed them and read them a few days prior to going. This gave Keegan a comfort feeling of familiarity once we walked into the site. We also brought them so we could transition between areas...and waiting.”
Just as important, McNulty says, “The staff at both places was so sweet and greeted us all upon arrival. The first thing they handed us was a sensory item (squeezy toy) to keep Keegan’s hands busy and give him some focus as we walked through the crowd of people.” Ganti echoes that sentiment. “Everyone is so kind and so helpful,” she says. “The volunteers are very well-trained and sensitive to the children’s needs. The Paper Mill Playhouse does an amazing job.”
The Union County Performing Arts Center is another theater that offers sensory-friendly performances. In March, there is a performance of the New Jersey Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, and in May, the puppeteer Jim West will present Aesop’s Fables.
AMC Theatres, meanwhile, in conjunction with the Autism Society, offers a sensory-friendly movie experience one Saturday a month at some theaters nationwide, including theaters in Wayne and at the Palisades Center in West Nyack, N.Y.
Watching a film or performance in a friendly and judgment-free environment is a wonderful opportunity for families.
“We have brought Keegan’s grandparents to the theater performances,” McNulty says, “and they loved watching Keegan’s excitement watching Ariel sing live on stage and SpiderMan fly overhead.”
“Everyone helps each other,” Ganti says. “These shows bring people in and it benefits everyone. It means a lot to our family.”
ENJOYING THE SHOW Paper Mill Playhouse supplies volunteers, a preview book and production accommodations for its special performances.
APPRECIATIVE AUDIENCE Keegan McNulty, 7, arrives at Paper Mill Playhouse for a sensory-friendly performance his whole family enjoyed.