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Musical tailored to autistic audience

13th December 2011

A Broadway musical has become the first performance ever to be tailored specifically to an autistic child audience.

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The organisers of the performance said that all 1,600 seats in the theatre sold out so quickly that 1,000 families were placed on a waiting list.

The unexpected demand for tickets suggests that there may be accessibility requirements hindering the autistic-spectrum community from participation in similar activities along with the rest of society.

Katie Sweeney, who attended the performance with her autistic son, said that just as society had built wheelchair ramps to accommodate people with physical disabilities, it would also need to accommodate people with autism.

Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy group, said that the acute sensory sensitivities experienced by people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) often limited possibilities for family experiences.

Those sensitivities can include bright lights, large crowds, and loud sounds.

Sweeney said the experience was among the highlights of her life.

Overstimulation can cause people with ASDs to express themselves using so-called stimming behaviours, which include repetitive fidgeting and calling out.

Sweeney said that her son Dusty had a lower-functioning form of autism, and that while he could spell and read, he was only able to express his needs in very basic ways, usually non-verbally.

She said that previously, in an upsetting experience, staff at another Broadway venue had asked her and her son to leave the performance.

Lisa Carling, who worked with the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) on its Autism Theatre Initiative, which developed the recent performance, said that her organisation ran a number of different programmes aimed at making theatre available to audiences with a range of disabilities.

She said that, after deliberating about how to hold an autism-spectrum accessible performance, the organisation had opted simply to change the entire performance.

In partnership with the Disney Corporation, the TDF invited four autism experts to review the performance and highlight potential issues, including lowering strobe lights, as well as doing away with loud sounds and loud music.

Carling said that 81% of the audience had never previously attended a Broadway performance as a family, signifying that the autistic-spectrum community was under-served.

Sweeney said that her son seemed to come alive, instead of living in his own world as usually appeared to be the case.


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