When you go to the theater, there are rules: sit still, don’t make noise, and clap at the end. If you get up to leave, you're often not let back in until intermission.
People on the autism spectrum can have a lot of trouble with those rules, which is why many Broadway shows have altered performances to make them more accessible. Now the Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse (YSKP) is following suit with Arts for All, a special production of their summer show “The Farm.” Organizers say it’s the first performance of its kind in the Dayton area.
The Need For Autism-Friendly Spaces
Yellow Springs resident Sylvia Ellison’s fifteen-year-old son Harper is on the autism spectrum. He negotiates public spaces much better than he used to, but she remembers how hard it was to go to the theater when Harper was younger.
“If you are the child or the family who gets there and is obviously having an issue because someone in your group is overwhelmed and upset, you know you’re being looked at as if there’s something wrong with you and that’s not a fun experience,” she said.
Ellison has never been to an autism-friendly performance, but she’s excited about the idea. “Oh I just I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s something that definitely would have benefited our family especially when our kids were younger.”
In general, people on the autism spectrum struggle with social cues and sensory processing, so sitting quietly through a performance is often impossible. Loud noises, sudden change, crowds, or bright lights can be overwhelming, and following a plot is a challenge.
On Broadway, the non-profit Theater Development Fund started the Autism Theater Initiative and worked with theater companies to make their productions more accessible to people on the autism spectrum and their families.
YSKP’s Arts for All follows the same model: There will be special education teachers on hand, and calming centers outside—places where kids can relax, play, and still go back in if they feel like it. Each child will get a fidget toy, a bendy plastic snake kids can use to keep their hands busy during the performance. A narrator will explain what will happen in each scene, and sudden, loud, noises will be cut from the music.
Kat Walter, who works with kids on the autism spectrum and with severe ADHD, explains how important events like this are for the whole community, not just people on the autism spectrum.
“We don’t want to be contained in environments where we’re not out among all of us,” she said. “This is inclusiveness, this is what diversity is about, that we can understand that people are different and quirky and very similar...we all have needs, different needs.”
Arts For All Does “The Farm”
“The Farm” is a musical about how farm animals, wild animals, and humans come together to save a farm in a small town in Ohio from developers. The cast is made up of 30 kids between the ages of 5 and 16.
For director Ara Beal, this event is also important to show the actors a different perspective.
“I think it’s powerful for a 10-year-old to stop and think about the fact that one of their classmates can’t just come and see the play they’re in,” she said. “And that...expands to think about how other people are closed out of things that they sort of just take for granted as normal kid experiences.”
The kids are really engaged with the idea of doing an autism-friendly show. 10-year-old Daphne Trillana is playing the fox in the play—she’ll wear a bright orange mask and a matching fox tail.
“I think I’ll be really excited because it’s just a new thing for Yellow Springs and it’ll be better for people who like can’t really see shows and they have that kind of thing,” she said.
Beal wants to relax the rules so that theater is more open to everyone. She hopes Arts for All will do just that.
“It’s a come as you thing, come as you are, be as you are and that’s fine and we’ll experience it along with you.”
The show is this Friday, July 24 at 7:30pm at the Amphitheatre on the Antioch College campus. Tickets are $5 at the door.
Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series about arts in the Miami Valley. It's made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.