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More Theaters in the Philadelphia Area Offer Sensory-friendly Shows

Families of children with special needs have more options than ever for "relaxed" performances in Philadelphia, its suburbs, South Jersey and Delaware.



More local theaters and performance venues offer programs for children with special needs and their families.

For parents of a child with autism, a visit to a theater, museum or other cultural venue was once a stressful experience.

Everyone involved in what was supposed to be a happy family outing was worried about glances or comments from those around them; parents were concerned about the need to constantly monitor their child’s behavior.

They feared their child would make noises, fidget excessively and not “behave properly” and the family would be embarrassed or asked to leave.

The road to inclusion

Fortunately, the cultural landscape has become more adaptive and inclusive. Within the last five years, arts and cultural organizations in Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware started to offer a number of sensory-friendly or “relaxed” performances.

Today, nearly half of local arts and cultural venues provide adaptive performances, programs and events that are modified for children with special needs and their families.

Grateful parents

Roger Ideishi, who plans adaptive arts and sensory-friendly programs around the country, has watched them thrive.

A Temple University professor and director of occupational therapy, Ideishi says the trend to teach artists and venues how to adapt programs for special needs audiences began around 2000.

“I first became involved with museum and community outreach programs that didn’t have experience with children who possess diverse abilities,” Ideishi says. “Now, we make sure that area artists and museum educators are trained and well able to address diverse learners.

“This has opened the floodgates to new opportunities for families who stayed away for fear of disrupting anyone else’s experience.”

Feedback from parents is positive.

“A few years ago, I took my 10-year-old son with autism to the sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker at the Pennsylvania Ballet and it was such a positive and comfortable experience that it completely changed the way that we approached future arts and cultural offerings,” says Lynn Schneider, a single mother from Huntingdon Valley, PA.

Now that Schneider and her son feel comfortable, they have attended sensory-friendly programs for dance, music and theater. “With an inviting environment and trained staff, we felt more than welcome.”

Val Murphy, of Southampton, PA and Erin, her 22-year-old daughter with autism, have taken advantage of the times set aside by local museums and theaters for people with special needs, when there aren’t long lines or large crowds.

She also appreciates other modifications, which include quieter music and brighter lights during performances. “We have benefited from a lot of these changes and I see more opportunities for Erin and her friends to enjoy community events.”

Ideishi knows why parents are so grateful.

“These are the few experiences that the parents, siblings and the child with the disability can do as an entire family,” he says. “Most often one family member is so focused on the child with the disability that he or she can’t enjoy the experience.”

Local venues step up

The venues have responded, in part, to the fact that 1 out of 59 children in the US is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Among the local groups with adaptive programs are: Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts; Pennsylvania Ballet; Philadelphia Orchestra; Philadelphia Theatre Company; Philly POPS; Walnut Street Theatre, all in Philadelphia; Montgomery Theater in Souderton, PA; People’s Light in Malvern, PA, and Theater Horizon in Norristown, PA. 

Through the New York-based Theater Development Fund’s Accessibility Program, Broadway has adapted select performances of hit musicals such as Alladin, Frozen, The Lion King, and Wicked. The “nonjudgmental” shows, complete with whimsical fidget toys and compassionate staff, are so popular that tickets sell out in less than two hours.

The Kimmel Center will offer its first sensory-friendly production in its Broadway Philadelphia series with a special performance of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, on Saturday, Dec. 22, at the Merriam Theater.

It will include relaxed house rules, designated quiet areas, trained staff and Art-Reach volunteers, noise-cancelling headphones, weighted bean bags, and fidget toys. Audience members can bring stress-relief devices and move around the theater.

Last piece of the puzzle

Ideishi says the last piece of the puzzle, especially for programs that mix typical and special needs audiences, is to educate the public so that there is a welcome social environment.

“We have more to do to educate the public about tolerance, acceptance and inclusion,” he says. “We have to help the public understand that community experiences should be for everybody.”

Debra Wallace is a Huntingdon Valley, PA-based freelance writer.

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