By Lauren Meyer, Spring 2015 Communications Apprentice
April is Autism Awareness Month, and The New Victory Theater is offering autism-friendly performances at both of our April productions, Catch Me! (Attrape-moi)
and The Mysterious Hat
. As a Communications Apprentice here, I’m enjoying learning about all the ways the New Victory makes theater accessible to everyone. But when I first heard about the autism-friendly performances offered at the New Vic, I had tons of questions. How are autism-friendly performances developed? What makes them different from other performances?
I immediately wanted to know more!
Thankfully, I was able to speak with Brandon Hutchinson
, a New Victory Usher Corps alumnus who had firsthand experience in the process. Brandon was in his third year as a member of the Usher Corps when he was given the opportunity to shadow the Education Department and work on the first autism-friendly performance at The New Victory. He shared his experiences and insights with me, and in the spirit of Autism Awareness Month, I'm excited to share them with you.
What originally interested you about working on this project?
When I started college I knew I wanted to work in the Education field, but I also knew that I didn't want to leave my performing arts background when I did so. When I learned that The New Vic was expanding their outreach to children on the autism spectrum, I wanted to be part of it.
The Ushers received special training for these autism-friendly performances. What was this training session like? How did this training help prepare you to assist students and families?
The consultants from Autism Friendly Spaces
taught us how they accommodate the sensory, social and communication-based needs of individuals across the autism spectrum. It was incredibly insightful to learn how to talk to these children. It is important to treat them like we would any other child, and not ostracize them if they have an outburst during the show. We were taught how to use concrete language and tools like If/Then cards
to quickly and quietly diffuse any situation. Some of the AFS staff present also had siblings who were on the spectrum, and they shared their insights with us.
What did you learn about how to adjust a performance or a space to create a positive, autism-friendly theater experience?
In learning about the main elements of autism, I learned that there are many different facets and triggers across that spectrum. Some accommodations we made included dimming the interior lights in the seating area rather than turning them all the way off and lowering sound levels in some moments of the show. I was also involved in researching fidgets, tools that can help alleviate some of the pressure a kid might feel in social situations. Fidgets can range from something as simple as a foam ball—something soft in the hands—to a puzzle—something complex that requires focus. A Calming Corner with beanbag chairs and an Activity Area near the live-feed monitor were also set up so if anyone needed to take a break they had someplace to go.
How did this experience at The New Victory influence your current work or studies? And what are you working towards now?
I've always wanted to work with kids who have special needs, and this experience catapulted me into the middle of where I wanted to be. I currently work at an after-school program where there are kids who are on the spectrum, and this summer I'll be working in the Performing Arts division of a summer camp. This camp is an inclusive camp where there are kids who are both on the spectrum and not, and I'll be using a majority of the things that I learned and researched to help the kids gain confidence through the arts.
What do you think is the value of arts organizations providing autism-friendly experiences for patrons?
Kids are kids. They all want to have fun and experience the same things. Some kids need help to get to a comfortable point where they are able to express themselves freely, and it's our job as educators to help them get there. The value of art is universal, and arts organizations have a duty to provide the same kind of open, welcoming feeling to all of the patrons who wish to attend. Autism-friendly performances tell kids who might be bullied or made fun of because they are "different" that there is a safe space. There is a place that they can come to and enjoy being a kid, because all kids, regardless of special need or disability, have the right to experience the power of art.
The New Victory is offering autism-friendly performances for both Catch Me!
(April 10 at 7pm) and The Mysterious Hat
(April 25 at 7pm). Everyone is welcome to enjoy the show in a sensory-friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
What to Expect at an Autism-Friendly Performance.
Download a pdf of our "Visiting the New Vic" Social Story.
Lauren Meyer is a Communications Apprentice for The New 42nd Street. As a teaching artist specializing in musical theater, she is passionate about encouraging students in the arts and inspiring new audiences. Originally from California, Lauren enjoys exploring New York City, bundled up in one too many coats