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Sensory-friendly theater performances provide comfort for special needs families

Beaver County Times - 1/28/2018

Jan. 28--PITTSBURGH -- Erin Gabriel's family loves to see live shows at the theater. They've gone to see "Beauty and the Beast," "The Nutcracker" and Cirque du Soleil in Pittsburgh.

Despite that, the experiences can sometimes be overwhelming for her three children, Collin, 13, Bridget, 10, and Abby, 8, who all are on the autism spectrum.

Gabriel, of Hanover Township, recalled a show she attended last year that didn't go quite according to plan. At this particular show, she said wheelchair seating was sold out. And because Abby uses a wheelchair, Gabriel carried her youngest daughter to her seat.

"It had always kind of occurred to me, but it was really blatant that night that Bridget has become so accustomed to sitting in the ADA seating, the wheelchair seating, to have a little extra space, that she had a lot of trouble fitting in the regular, cramped seats," she said. "It was very loud, there were so many people talking and clapping. The music was very loud, so she was at some point, especially during the end, the standing ovation they gave, she was curled up in her chair with her fingers in her ears. And Abby was squealing and kicking the seat in front of her."

That's why it's been so valuable that the Gabriel's have been able to attend sensory-friendly performances on several occasions, which take lighting and sound into consideration.

On Saturday, she and her two daughters will be seeing a sensory-friendly viewing of "Wicked" at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, which is a story about the "Wizard of Oz" friendship between Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch, long before Dorothy comes along.

In addition to audience lights remaining on and loud sounds turned down in a sensory-friendly performance, there's more allowance for moving, dancing, and singing in the auditorium. Families are able to bring their own snacks, and trained volunteers can help out to answer questions or provide help.

Luciana Randall, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Autism Connection of Pennsylvania helps coordinate training with the Cultural Trust staff and performers.

"It's really a nonjudgmental atmosphere, because a lot of our families do experience quite a bit of discrimination," Randall said. "... Traditional theater can be intimidating because it's a lot of expectation that someone can sit really still and stay really quiet. And because of just the neurology involved with autism, that can be pretty challenging for people."

The shows can provide a positive introduction to the theater for some families.

"They get to have a nice, positive memory, and then, a lot of times, they'll just buy tickets for other regular shows after that. So it does also help bring patrons into that for their lifetime," Randall added.

She has helped coordinate these shows with the Cultural Trust since 2013. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre have also offered sensory-friendly performances.

Vanessa Braun, of the Cultural Trust, said they reached out to the "Wicked" cast to see if they would be willing to accommodate.

"We started a trend and Pittsburgh, our region, has actually become a national leader in autism-friendly and sensory-friendly programming, which we're pretty proud of and it's impressive for a small city like ours," she said.

Gabriel and her family continue to attend both traditional and sensory-friendly shows, but she fully appreciates the latter experience.

"The kids can kind of stand up and move around if they need to, and nobody gives you a second look if your kid's making a funny noise, and they don't have the volume up so loud, so we don't have to put our fingers in our ears to cancel out the sound," she said. "So it's a different experience, and it's a more comfortable experience."


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