The same things that make live theater a thrill for most of us can make it distressing for a child on the autism spectrum. Loud noises, a sudden flash of light, the surprise that comes from out of nowhere — all are unsettling for someone who craves predictability.
Kids with autism spectrum disorder shouldn’t have to miss out on the joy of theater. Children’s Theatre of Charlotte has developed a way every kid can come to the theater and be mesmerized — without being terrorized. It’s Julie Higginbotham’s job to ensure a smooth experience for those kids.
She will soon begin her fourth season as a consultant to Children’s Theatre. “Being a welcoming place for all is part of our strategic plan,” said Sarah Kasper, the theater’s PR and social media manager.
Every Children’s Theatre Mainstage production includes one American sign language-interpreted performance and one “sensory-friendly” performance. “Generally, we have smaller audiences for those performances,” Kaspar said. “We don’t try to fill every seat.”
“We let them know that — at this performance — it’s OK not to sit still,” Higginbotham added. “If a family sits on the front row and that turns out to be too close, we want them to be able to get up and sit somewhere else.”
Higginbotham, whose consulting business is called Precious Developments, has to strike a balance in her role. She must serve the audience she’s been hired to protect, but she has to remain true to the source material, too. “I don’t change the script,” she said. “If the show calls for an intermission, we’re going to have an intermission.”
In fact, in the downloadable guide parents and kids can study before coming to the theater, there’s even a warning about intermission. “It’s time for a quick break!” it reads. “Get ready to settle in for the rest of this story right after a brief intermission.” That’s invaluable information for an audience that doesn’t like surprises.
The goal is to give kids on the spectrum and their families an authentic experience while removing, or toning down, anything that could be a trigger. Actors Theatre hired Higginbotham to consult when it produced “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” a play whose main character is on the autism spectrum.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that impacts one in every 59 children born in the United States, according to the Autism Society. Signs typically appear in early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.
Some behaviors associated with the disorder include delayed language learning; difficulty making eye contact or having a conversation; difficulty with reasoning; and narrow, intense interests that may border on fixation or obsession. Many people with autism spectrum disorder live independent lives, earn college and graduate degrees, have successful careers and families. Others may never learn to speak.
The process of inclusivity
Higginbotham has her process down to a science. She comes in at the designer run stage. That’s when the entire creative team — the costume designer, sound designer, lighting designer, set designer and more — sees a rehearsal from start to finish.
She’s not at the table reading when the cast is first learning the script, and she doesn’t see the early stages of choreography. Similar to Goldilocks, she comes in not too early and not too late in the process. There’s a time that’s just right for Higginbotham’s review.
She doesn’t read the script until she sees the designer run. She wants her first impression to be what the audience’s first impression would be.
At the designer run, Higginbotham is looking for elements of the play or musical that could be problematic for kids on the autism spectrum. At this point, the props aren’t being used, and the set hasn’t been built. She’s looking at stage direction and flagging what could be a concern.
If the stage direction calls for a doorbell to ring, the director will say, “doorbell,” at the designer run. But an actual doorbell sound could be startling and loud. Higginbotham makes a note that she may need a quieter stand-in for a doorbell. At the very least, she’ll need to warn the audience they’re about to hear a sudden noise.
Hula hoops with lights in them? A red flag. She makes a note to talk to the lighting designer and prop master about a workaround.
If a strobe effect is called for, she knows she’ll have to figure out Plan B. Strobe lights can trigger seizures.
By the time the sensory-friendly performance rolls around, Higginbotham has seen the show anywhere from eight to 10 times in pre-production. She’s become an expert and has — she hopes —identified any sound, movement or lighting trick that could create panic for an audience member. And she’s put something gentler in its place.
But she goes even deeper. Once she starts attending dress rehearsals, she snaps photos so she can create sensory-friendly performance guides — one for kids and another for parents. Theses guides are available to download from the Children’s Theatre website in advance of the performance.
Parents don’t just tell kids what to expect. They can show them. In words and pictures. “If parents know what to expect,” Higginbotham said, “they can help relax their kids.”
“We want to help families prepare to come into this space,” she said. “The guide gives them the flow of the show without giving away any secrets.”
Going the extra mile
Often, children will already know and love the book on which a play is based. Several kids brought their own copies of “Go, Dog. Go!” to the Children’s Theatre play. The only problem? The script didn’t follow the book exactly; there were a few inconsistencies. The study guides Higginbotham and the theater produce give an accurate timeline of what’s going to happen and when.
Another bonus: Parent guides include teaching opportunities. “If there’s a character who’s not making the best choices, we suggest it may be a good time for parents to talk to their kids about making wise decisions,” Higginbotham said. “If there’s going to be a very busy or loud scene, we point that out to parents, too, to allow them to decide if they want to sit through it or go to the quiet room for the duration.”
With Higginbotham’s guidance, Children’s Theatre goes the extra mile to ensure each family has a positive experience. The lights in the theater are kept low — rather than being turned all the way off, the sound is lowered when needed and fidgets, headphones and weighted toys are offered to help children feel comfortable and settled.
In addition, someone is stationed at the front of the stage with two green glow sticks. They’re used as warning that a “sensory-rich moment” (sudden change in volume, change in lighting, hordes of people bursting on stage) is about to happen. “Raising one light means there’s a smaller sensory moment coming up (the start of a new song, for instance, or a change in lighting),” reads the website. “Raising two lights means a more intense sensory-rich moment is about to occur.”
If it becomes too much, there are two quiet spaces for children who need to leave the theater. They can still watch the performance on a monitor, if they wish. There’s also a tunnel a child can use as a temporary hideout if he or she needs an enclosed space to feel safe.
Higginbotham is intent on doing all she can to ensure every theatergoer at a sensory-friendly performance has a great experience.
It’s a role she’s been preparing for, in many ways, for the past 20 years. Her work with Mecklenburg County in education and social services helped prepare her to start her own consulting business. (And her two teenagers’ experiences at Children’s Theatre meant she was already familiar with its work.) Her undergraduate degree is in psychology, and she’s close to having a master’s degree in education with a specialty in early childhood special education.
Her belief that theater is intended for everyone comes through loud and clear. No — make that quiet and clear.
“However you need to be at the theater,” she said, “is how you can be.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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