Written by Aliza Greenberg, Arts Enrichment Coordinator for LearningSpring School
"Are we going to The New Victory Theater?"
Aliza, bottom row and left of center, gives good Gruffalo face with her fellow AFS volunteers at an Autism-Friendly Performance of The Gruffalo.
After attending Handa's Surprise
at The New Victory Theater, I get asked this question by my youngest students almost every day. Handa’s Surprise
wasn't designed specifically for kids on the autism spectrum, nor was the production adapted to be autism-friendly; but the format of the show and the welcoming environment that The New Victory provides allowed my students on the autism spectrum to have a fun, positive, memorable day at the theater.
, where I am the Arts Enrichment Coordinator, is a school for students on the autism spectrum. From my past experiences with The New Victory as a volunteer with Autism-Friendly Spaces
, I knew the New Vic to be committed to providing a supportive and inclusive theatergoing environment for young people with autism.
The New Victory partners with Autism-Friendly Spaces to train their staff and help plan and coordinate their autism-friendly performances
. While volunteering, I've seen a staff passionate about making their theater an inclusive space, and I've had the chance to collaborate with the fantastic New Victory Usher Corps
. Everyone I've worked with at the theater has been eager to learn more about autism and provide the most comfortable theatergoing environment possible for this population, so I knew that even if the performance wasn’t specifically autism-friendly, it would still be a welcoming environment for my students.
Student animation made in preparation for The Star Keeper.
Fruit-filled post-show reflection from Handa's Surprise.
The best bed ever, from a post-show reflection following The Star Keeper.
Through the Education Partnership Program
, my students and I have had the pleasure of attending three productions this year, and we have a fourth coming up in May. Not every show is the right fit for every student, so the New Victory Education staff worked with me to identify the shows that would best engage students on the autism spectrum at different ages. We chose shows that had multi-sensory engagement (words, music, strong visuals) but were not overly stimulating to the senses. The Education staff also seated our group close to the exits in case any of my students needed a break.
For each show we see, we begin preparing a month—sometimes two months—in advance. One of the ways we prepare is by learning as much as possible about the productions beforehand, and by engaging students in the art forms they will experience. For Handa's Surprise
, we explored the book, re-enacted the story with fruit made from clay and learned some of the show’s music—the fruit lullaby has even become a classroom calming ritual!
The New Victory Teaching Artists who visited our school also provided interesting ways to engage with the shows’ art forms. All the Teaching Artists have been eager to work with us and learn more about how to best support students on the autism spectrum. We have been able learn side by side as educators and artists in this process.
Of course, necessary preparations extend well beyond engagement with story and art forms. Individuals with autism often do not know the social conventions associated with going to the theater, and the theatergoing experience can present many challenges. It's dark and quiet, and sounds and visual effects that excite the senses often occur without warning. There’s also little opportunity to move around.
To help prepare my students, I create social stories explaining the events and social expectations of the day. I also create theater strategy cards for them to be able to easily identify their needs using pictures during the show. For The Gruffalo
, inspired by to the New Victory School Tool®
, we all made Bravery Backpacks and filled them with calming strategies that students could use during the performance: putting on noise-canceling headphones, handling a fidget, asking for help from a teacher, getting a drink of water or taking a break.
|Example in-theater strategy cards, along with our Bravery Backpack worksheet.
My students love the theater, and they deserve to experience the joy of theatergoing as much as any kid. I look forward to more theaters presenting productions that support and engage individuals with autism. And just as The New Victory has welcomed our students to the theater, even when the performance was not specifically autism-friendly, I hope more theaters will begin opening their doors to individuals with autism. But to my kids' question, "Are we going to The New Victory Theater?", my answer will always be, "Soon!"