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Since she was 6 years old, Una Albers has been enthralled by musicals. She listens to her favorite cast recordings on repeat— “Wicked” is among her top shows— and has taken over her mom’s iTunes account to buy showtunes.
But going to Broadway shows started becoming stressful for her family when Albers, who has Asperger’s syndrome, became more sensitive to the loud noises, strobe lights and sometimes startling elements of live theater. Luckily, the now 15-year-old has a habit of researching autism-friendly activities online and found the Theater Development Fund (TDF) Autism Theater Initiative (ATI), which sponsors four special performances a year for families of children with autism.
“Once she found this venue where there’s this support and encouragement through the program, she felt so comfortable and could relax and really enjoy the show,” Alber’s mother, Maura Rose, of Brooklyn, New York, told FoxNews.com. “She wants to make sure she can go to every single one.”
That support starts before the performance begins, with warnings for parents online about elements that may be scary or jarring and special support materials that detail the characters with descriptions and photos of actors in costume to prepare the audience. The house lights are left brighter than normal so audience members can navigate the aisles if they need to leave and take a break in one of the quiet activity areas in the lobby. Each performance is staffed with volunteers that are experienced in managing children with autism.
Attending mainstream theater performances became frustrating for Albers, especially when she had trouble controlling her reactions— clapping longer than the rest of the audience— and Rose would have to take her outside, disrupting the audience and upsetting Albers.
“If it were not this type of environment, it would be far more stressful,” Rose, 52, said.
“The integrity is kept”
ATI is one of four TDF accessibility programs, which include accessible seating, audio description, open captioning, and sign language interpreting at select performances. The program was launched in October 2011 with a performance of “The Lion King,” after two years of planning with parents, special education teachers and physicians.
“As our accessibility services continued to expand, we were aware of missing a huge unidentified audience in our area of families affected by autism,” Lisa Carling, director of TDF Accessibility Programs, told FoxNews.com.
According to a March 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, New Jersey had the highest rate of autism of the 11 states evaluated, with 1 in 41 children identifying with an autism spectrum disorder; the national average is 1 in 68 school-aged children.
Each autism-friendly performance is specially tailored for the audience, while maintaining the integrity of the show, Carling said.
For example, with “Wicked”, the TDF team was concerned the flying monkeys may be scary, but kept them in, as they are essential to the story.
“I don’t think a regular audience member would notice these changes other than the house lights,” Marybeth Abel, production stage manager of “Wicked,” told FoxNews.com. “The integrity is kept.”
ATI uses three consultants who work with individuals on the spectrum to advise on modifications to the production, support programming in the lobby, marketing, and the character guides and social narrative materials. One is a board-certified behavior analyst, the other is an occupational therapist and the third is a 17-year-old high school senior with autism who also talks with staff and actors to help them understand the experience.
During each performance, the sound levels are capped at 90 decibels; lighting is adjusted to cut strobe or flashing lights when possible.
In “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark,” the aerial choreography between the title character and Green Goblin required multiple spotlights that couldn’t be cut, for safety reasons.
“[Parents] can look at a video clip [online], judge, and say, ‘My child can handle that’ or not,” Carling said.
The social narrative materials are focused on preparing for the experience of going to the theater and include pictures of everything the child will encounter, including the exterior of the theater building, the lobby, the ticket takers, the escalators, the restrooms and the break areas.
While typical individuals may be excited by going to a new space, that’s not the case for those on the spectrum, as they have difficulty with flexibility, said Katherine Sullivan, PhD, a clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University Langone’s Child Study Center.
“There’s a bit of anxiety behind it, also the sudden change. For a child they might see it as more threatening,” Sullivan told FoxNews.com, adding that the social narrative materials make the scenario familiar and quells the anxiety or threatening response so the child can be more open to the experience, rather than wary of it.
Each performance has the same ratio of volunteers as to the theater’s staff— if a theater has 30 ushers, TDF aims to have 30 volunteers to help the staff.
“At least 25 to 30 percent of our volunteers are professionals in the field and are able to make a judgment call in the case of emergency, because that can happen,” Carling said. “The rest are people with hands-on experience; parents and siblings of a child or adult on the spectrum are always good, special education teachers.”
Tickets to autism-friendly performances are discounted 40 to 50 percent from the full box office price— ranging from $40 to $85— and all of the shows sell out.
“We are unique in that regard because we have a mailing list of 7,600 individuals and each represents households. The Gershwin Theatre for ‘Wicked’ has a capacity of close to 2,000. ‘Aladdin’ has over 1,700 seats— that’s not enough for our entire list,” Carling said.
She noted that they sell every seat, while some theaters across the country prefer to leave seats empty for more open space.
“We don’t feel that way because if you look at a family, it’s not going to be [an entire theater] of people on the autism spectrum sitting together, it’s going to be about 25 to 30 percent,” she said. “They’re coming with their parents, siblings, caregivers— they are all buffers.”
“Those are moments we relish”
Before each ATI performance, the actors are prepped that they will be able to see the audience and there may be singing, standing, response to dialogue and clapping and laughter in unexpected places.
“We always tell actors to give the same great performance as always, but be prepared,” Carling said. “The actors are wonderful. Our feedback is pretty consistent that these are some of the most powerful performances they’ve given.”
“Wicked,” with its themes that friendship can prevail, no matter what individuals’ differences are, and that what’s on the surface doesn’t always reveal an person’s true character, has done two autism-friendly performances. The production was interested in working with ATI because they want to develop adolescents and teens toward live theater, regardless of disability, Abel, who’s been with “Wicked” for eight years, said.
When the flying monkeys came on stage, the kids shouted their excitement and tried to talk to them, she recalled of one ATI performance.
“Those are moments we relish,” Abel said. “It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences for all of us.”
The ATI performances make the cast and crew rethink parts of their work that they take as run of show.
“We talk about it after— ‘Did you hear the reaction there, we’ve never gotten that before!’ [Verbal reactions] are a wonderful response for the actor because then they go back and realize that line they took for granted meant something to somebody,” Abel said.
“It’s really empowering”
Now that Albers has attended several ATI shows— seeing “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Wicked” multiple times— she is comfortable enough that she went through volunteer training and has helped hand out materials and “fidgets,” sensory items like squishy toys or hard rubber balls that can be squeezed to relieve stress.
“Not only does it help her being able to enjoy theater, it also helps in terms of learning some skills in giving back,” Rose said.
Going to see live theater, just like any other child, and experiencing a new situation isn’t just entertaining, it allows them to be acknowledged, Sullivan said.
“I think it’s really empowering,” she added. “More and more of what we are seeing is that autism is a very diverse population, a spectrum. As some of these kids are growing up, they’re very aware and realize they are different. I think as they get older, that really affects their mood and self-confidence.”
For families with a child on the spectrum, the opportunities for an outing that the entire family can enjoy together are rare.
“I think they’ve been thoughtful at thinking about what are the common things we see with autism,” Sullivan said of TDF’s work. “We can’t account for every child, but if children at least have access or opportunity, that’s huge and I think parents are so appreciative of at least being able to come to the theater, have the opportunity for their child, to have that judgement-free place for children to have access to theater in general.”
The autism-friendly performances have given Albers the added benefit of making friends with the volunteers and finding people with an equal love of theater. While she’s outgoing, she tends to steer conversation to her own agenda, but when she talks theater, she’s better able to connect with others, her mother said.
“Theater, overall, is a unique opportunity for those on the spectrum because it provides an escape, allows them to be in the moment. I think often times they can’t do that,” Rose said. “It provides a shared [emotional] experience and it can be just incredibly cathartic for them.”