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A trip to the theater should be a thing of joy — an escape from the day-to-day, an entry into a world of creativity. But for families of children with autism, attending a live theater performance can be difficult. That’s why Red Mountain Theatre and the Autism Society of Alabama have teamed up to create sensory-friendly productions that make theater accessible to everyone.
“People with autism often have heightened sensitivities to light and sound, and may feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar environments,” says Bama Hager, Program Director of the Autism Society of Alabama. Working with the cast and crew of Red Mountain Theatre, she’s helped modify performances to make them sensory-friendly. This includes making small adjustments, like leaving the house lights on during the show, modifying noises (such as a clap of thunder), and alerting audience members of sudden motions (like a character running across the stage).
The development of programs for children with autism and on the autism spectrum has major implications: autism affects one in 68 children in Alabama.
“The program has been magnificently successful so far,” says Bama, who is also the parent of a child with autism.“ It’s really opened up an entire world for the families we serve.”
Red Mountain has staged two sensory-friendly performances to date: “The Secret Garden” and “The Little Mermaid.”
“This program is a win-win for all involved,” says Frank Sottosanti, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Protective Life, which supports both the Autism Society of Alabama and Red Mountain Theatre. “Through sensory-friendly shows, the theater community gains access to the population of children with autism. Working with Red Mountain Theater, the Autism Society of Alabama co-creates sensory-friendly experiences. And Birmingham families with children on the spectrum are able to attend theater, which is often out of reach for many people from a practical perspective.”
Frank, who serves on the board of both organizations, approached the two with the idea of adding sensory-friendly performances. His 17-year old son Ryan has autism. Autism exists on a spectrum, and although Ryan functions on the higher end of the spectrum, the Sottosanti family is familiar with the difficulty of enjoying simple things in public, from going to a restaurant to attending a live show.
“Children with autism don’t always have the most predictable behavior,” Frank says, so the Autism Society works to develop programs like these live theater shows where the environment is more controlled, and no parent will feel judged if their child speaks out or makes noise.”
In addition to modifying sound and light, Red Mountain Theatre welcomes families to a “Meet Your Seat” night prior to sensory-friendly performances. This makes children — and parents — feel more comfortable. On the day of the show, there’s a quiet room for children who need to take a break and a concession stand stocked with snacks compatible with eating programs some children must follow.
For Keith Cromwell, Red Mountain Theatre’s director, these first two sensory-friendly performances represent the first of many. He says that Red Mountain is committed to making theater accessible to all people, including those with disabilities.
“When we started this work, I didn’t entirely realize what a challenge it was for families with autism to attend the theater,” he says. “It means so much to have parents come up to us and say ‘That’s the first time that no one asked us to leave the theater.’”
Keith says Red Mountain is looking at its upcoming lineup to determine which shows might be the best fit for the next sensory-friendly performances, and is thankful for Protective’s support of the Theatre’s mission of inclusion.
Bama agrees. “We are so thankful for everyone who has supported these shows, especially Protective,” Bama says. She hopes that this will become a model for other community theaters across Alabama. “There’s no reason that other theaters couldn’t host similar sensory-friendly performances. I really see this being a model that could impact people with autism throughout the state.”