Long Island Children’s Museum developed a live theater experience so that those on the autism spectrum and their families could access performances in a judgement-free setting.
Our museum has a family theater that offers programming on a year round basis, but we were challenged in making this space fully available to children and families of all abilities. Through our theater advisory committee we became aware of the development of reserved performances for children on the autism spectrum happening in performance venues nationally. Discussions started among staff and it became clear that more training was needed about working with the special needs community if we were to become active contributors in serving this audience and in developing appropriate theater performances.
After several meetings with representatives from the ACLD (Adults and Children with Learning and Developmental) and our staff, an autism-friendly performance was developed that allowed us to expand our live theater experience and outreach to families with children on the spectrum. The “after hours” performance was adapted to create a supportive environment that addressed the needs of those on the autism spectrum and with other sensory sensitivities. Leveraging staff time and budget to make this performance happen was a challenge, but we felt very strongly that it was important to offer families access to the joys of live theater in a comfortable and judgment-free setting.
Staff developed a downloadable “social script” to familiarize audience members with the performance and with the theater experience at the museum. This intervention tool was used to share social information with individuals on the autism spectrum and prepare them for situations and environments they would encounter. Production sound and light levels were modulated during the performance, and a “quiet room” for breaks was made available to audience members adjacent to the theater for use as needed. Tactile finger puppets and specially trained staff were on hand to make audience members feel welcome, safe and comfortable.
Presenting families with a sensory-friendly theater performance was a natural expansion of our programming to serve children on the autism spectrum and allow them to fully experience all that the Museum offers. In offering this first-ever autism-friendly performance at our theater, we joined a select group of theaters and organizations across the nation that are providing barrier-free theater for families with children on the autism spectrum. The performance was very successful and a post-performance evaluation helped us refine our future programming efforts in terms of performance times while highlighting audience appreciation for affordable theater experiences in the community to serve their family. We received many requests to incorporate play time at the museum into the autism-friendly theater experience, since many children had such a strong familiarity with the building and its usual role as a play space.
We have had continued professional development for all museum staff to identify ways to make our museum as a whole a place for children of all abilities to play and explore. Following the presentation and panel discussion, staff voiced their appreciation to directors for offering continued support in their training and shared that their comfort level in working with special needs audiences had increased. We are submitting an NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) grant to assist in offering additional autism-friendly performances in the future. This project has been the catalyst for growth on many levels and has helped establish wonderful connections for ongoing collaborations in our community.