Sensory-Friendly Performances Open Theater World to People with Autism

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Red Mountain Theater Company

People with autism often get uncomfortable in situations like live theater. Sudden loud noises and bright lights can cause distress. With one in 68 children being diagnosed with the condition, lots of Alabama families don’t see musicals or plays. One theater in Birmingham wants to change that by offering one of Alabama’s first “sensory-friendly” performances.

Keith Cromwell, executive director of Red Mountain Theater Company, is directing RMTC’s upcoming production of The Secret Garden. It’s about a young girl named Mary who’s forced to live with a reclusive uncle on a giant English manor. One day, Mary stumbles upon a locked garden that servants say is forbidden. Defiantly, Mary enters to find a breathtaking sanctuary full of mystical wonders.

It’s business as usual for Cromwell and the cast, but one show this month will be slightly different. For the first time, Red Mountain Theater is offering a “sensory-friendly” performance for people with autism. Cromwell worked with officials at the Autism Society of Alabama on what aspects of the performance need to be adjusted. It starts by changing the physical environment.

“We don’t take the house lights all the way down, so that there’s more ambient light in the performance space,” Cromwell says. “We’ll be very careful with sound cues. If you can imagine, loud thunder bursts or something unexpected.”

Vestavia Hills’s Frank Sottosanti and his family have shied away from the theater for years. His 16-year-old son Ryan has autism and is sensitive to sound. Sottosanti says Ryan often gets frightened and uncomfortable when loud noises are going on around him. He remembers, when Ryan was younger, having to put noise cancelation headphones on Ryan so he could comfortably watch fireworks.

That’s why Sottosanti approached Red Mountain Theater about trying a sensory-friendly performance.

“I think by creating a safe environment it just puts everybody in a better spot,” says Sottosanti. People with autism can be hypersensitive to things like darkness, bright lights and loud noises. Some have difficulty sitting still; some have sudden audible outbursts. And any changes to their environment can be traumatic.

“If you think about a theater, it can be dark, often times there are unexpected loud sounds and sometimes it startles the kids,” Sottosanti says.

To create a more welcoming environment, Cromwell says the theater will hold a “meet your seat” night. Families can come and get familiar with the performance space the night before the show. They’re also considering having a story navigator to help the audience prepare for any sensory surprises. During the show this person will follow along with the script.

“If something’s coming, they’ll raise a flag,” says Cromwell. “And that just lets there be an awareness that something’s about to happen.”

Cromwell says it’s all about taming the unexpected. But what should cast members anticipate? James Lekatz from Stages Theater Company near Minneapolis says anything is possible. And he should know. In 2012, Stages became pioneers of sensory-friendly theater. Lekatz remembers one little audience member who was more fixated on the theater’s exit ramps than a recent performance of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

“You could watch him through the whole show just looking at that ramp, wanting it so bad,” Lekatz recalls. “And about half way through, he got up and just started running up and down this ramp, just having a wonderful time.”

And no one complained. What sets sensory-friendly performances apart, Lekatzs says, is that they provide a safe space where people with autism are free to be themselves while also allowing them access to theater. A world that – much like The Secret Garden – was at one time off limits.