A Different Type of Performance

Autism-friendly Broadway Shows Bring Theater to a new Audience

During his long career in theater, Steven Chaikelson has served as general manager of Broadway productions ranging from “Death of a Salesman” to “Ring of Fire.” Yet, until recently, he had never taken his youngest children, twins Jamie and Daniel, to a Broadway show.

The 10-year-olds, who are on the autism spectrum, had been to several other plays with their father, including children’s productions. But as much as Chaikelson wanted to share his passion for the theater with his kids, he knew that seeing a Broadway show was unlikely. “It was challenging,” he says of bringing the twins to other theaters. “Jamie would tend to vocalize during a performance, so he might start talking to himself; he might start singing a completely different song.” Daniel enjoyed the theater when he was very young, but, as he got older, the experience became more difficult for him. “He’d walk in and start to freak out a little bit when it started. There was just so much hitting him from so many different directions,” Chaikelson says.

For many children with autism, attending a live theater performance of any type, let alone a Broadway show, is out of the question. The lights, the sounds and the large number of people in the theater can be troubling for kids on the spectrum. But the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), a nonprofit in New York City, launched a program in 2011 that is making Broadway shows accessible through a series of autism-friendly performances.

TDF’s mission is to provide support for works with artistic merit and to expose a diverse audience to the theater. The group has previously put on special performances for audiences with disabilities. In 2008, it began working on an idea to present an autism-friendly performance.

“We had done very successful outreach to students with hearing and vision loss through public schools, and the special-education teachers said, ‘What can you do for students on the autistic spectrum?” says Lisa Carling, TDF’s director of accessibility programs. “Right now, there are so many kids who are being diagnosed.”

But, unlike planning a performance for hearing- or vision-impaired audiences, an autism-friendly performance isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. “We were dealing with a wide range of behavior on the spectrum,” Carling says. TDF reached out to Chaikelson and several other Broadway managers and producers whose children have autism to gather input on how to tweak a production for an audience of kids on the spectrum and their families. The group also consulted with Jamie D. Bleiweiss, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Hunter College who is also the co-founder and director of Autism Friendly Spaces, Inc., a nonprofit that helps organizations make their spaces and services accommodating to those with disabilities.

“We worked with the production teams, recommending minor adjustments to the audio levels and lighting to address some of the sensory sensitivities that individuals with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] commonly experience,” Bleiweiss says. “It was of the utmost importance to us that the integrity of every show was maintained to ensure that the audiences had an authentic experience and were not provided with a watered-down version of the shows.”

For example, in “The Lion King,” the first autism-friendly show that TDF sponsored, a strobe light usually shines during Mufasa’s death scene. The autism-friendly show substituted a dim light for the strobe. The consultants also recommended no noises louder than 90 decibels. House lights don’t go all the way down during the shows, either.

For each performance, TDF partners with a play. It buys all the seats for the production and sells them at a discount to families of children on the spectrum. TDF also consults with the play’s producers, cast and crew on needed changes. So far, there have been five TDF-sponsored autism-friendly performances of Broadway shows, including two each of “Mary Poppins” and “The Lion King,” both Disney productions, as well as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” last year.

“One of the things we talked about was really educating the cast and the theater staff at whichever performance we were presenting, so that the actors would know what they’re in for [and that] the house staff, especially the ushers, would know how to work with this community, many of whom were coming for the first time,” Chaikelson says.

Every performance has a calming corner where children can go if they start to feel anxious or overwhelmed. “[The families] get to experience the magic of theater in a welcoming and accepting environment where they don’t have to worry about someone telling their child to be quiet or being asked to leave because their child is too disruptive,” says Bleiweiss.

More than two dozen volunteers are on hand during each show to help with any needs that arise, and TDF offers coloring books and other activities for kids in the quiet area. Children are encouraged to bring comfort foods. They also receive a booklet before the show that introduces the characters in the play and gives them an outline of what to expect during the play. The booklet includes pictures of the ticket takers and suggests that, if children get nervous, they might hold a family member’s hand or play with a favorite “fidget,” such as a Koosh ball.

Carling says that about one-half to three-quarters of the families who attend are from New York City, and others come from farther away. She remembers one woman who drove all the way from Tennessee with her teenage son, who is on the spectrum, to see “Spider-Man.” “Her son couldn’t [tolerate airplane travel]. She didn’t have a ticket; they showed up the day of the performance. Luckily, we had some emergency seats and were able to accommodate them,” Carling says. “It’s that kind of interest and passion to do whatever it takes to get to see an autism-friendly performance.”

Though TDF was among the first to offer the autism-friendly live theater performances, they’re starting to pop up elsewhere. Houston, Pittsburgh, San Diego and London have had or are planning such shows, and TDF has consulted with many local theater groups about how to stage autism-friendly programs, as well as what to expect during them. “This is the most honest audience we’ll ever get,” Carling says. “There are sounds and movements in the auditorium that have nothing to do with the kids’ being bored and everything to do with their excitement and responding.”

For Chaikelson, it’s been a way to share his passion for theater in a way he wasn’t sure would ever be possible with his family, which also includes eldest son, Kevin, and wife, Amanda Rosen. But it’s also nice to connect with other families who have a child on the spectrum. “For kids, it is that experience of going to the theater,” he says. “For parents, it’s a little more emotional. You’re able to take the kids to experience this, and you’re able to go as a family—go out and experience this together without the constant fear. It’s people dealing with the same issues you’re dealing with, and it takes the pressure off in a huge way. You can go and relax a bit and enjoy the show on its own terms.”

For more, visit tdf.org.