I’d really like to take my child to see a performance at an arts venue but don’t know how to make this a successful experience for them, and for me.

The Ultimate ‘How to’ Guide for Success

There is an increasing number of ‘relaxed’ or ‘Autism-friendly’ options within arts venues with a greater focus than ever on the needs of those with Autism. Unfortunately, some offerings are more informed than others but the intention to deliver a positive experience for everyone concerned is consistent. From my experience, in order to really make this outing successful for families, it’s important that the whole process is congruent with the needs of your child – from the choice of show, to the environmental modifications required and the visual supports offered. When all of these areas are addressed, the likelihood of a relevant experience that is enjoyable for the whole family is heightened.

When planning for Sydney Opera House excursions for the whole of our school (80-100 students, from toddlers to young adults with moderate to severe Autism) over the last 6 years, the diverse needs of each person has needed to be taken into account with every aspect of decision making.

During this process, I have become progressively aware that the selected show has a more positive effect on our students when the content is engaging and in alignment with their motivations (e.g. animals or orchestral instruments). It is also incredibly helpful when there is minimal dialogue involved and an appealing musical, movement and visual presence. This is not always possible to attain (as sometimes the most suitable shows are not designated as ‘Autism-friendly’) however it is interesting to note how this imbalance noticeably affects our population of young people. A couple of years ago, whilst the school was watching a show that was quite verbose, it was affirming to see how our students appeared to be more tense, unsettled and anxious during the talking sections of the performance but then almost en masse, relaxed their bodies, displayed a happier affect and became more socially aware when the music started and they could enjoy a song.

An environmental focus with input from carers, the venue and the production team cannot be overestimated in its contribution towards a positive experience for all. Every aspect needs to be carefully examined, from what method of transport will be taken, where you will park your car, how far the walk is to the entrance of the building, where you may be able to congregate in order to settle your child when you first arrive at the venue (for a quiet snack and ease of access to the toilets) and how easily it will be to transition into the theatre.

A visual forewarning about the order of the day is incredibly important for your child’s understanding of what is going to happen, to give them time to overcome their anxiety and to process the expectations that are going to be placed upon them. Most venues that offer ‘relaxed’ performances will have a social story that you can modify and customise. If not, it is highly advisable to engage in a ‘dry run’ or do some ‘recon’ where you take photos of everything that will be relevant to your day-out on the way to the venue, at the venue and if you can, within the theatre space – you should be able to access some of this information on the venue’s website.

If at all possible (and I recognise that this is harder to acquire than environmental photos for visual supports) an activity sequence of the show is very useful in order to maintain engagement and minimise anxiety of your child during the show. For our students (after having access to the script and if we’re lucky, some audio or video of the show) we can create a visual lesson sequence that they can use throughout the performance. Through this, they attain a more concrete perception of time by crossing off what components have concluded and what is yet to be completed before the show finishes and they can leave the theatre.

Access to the songs and maybe some video of the performance before the show is truly a gift! This gives your child the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the content of the performance in other contexts, hopefully generalise the material on the day, feel more comfortable and safe throughout the show experience and of course, within the theatre space. We have also found that singing a ‘hello song’ before the performance starts and a ‘goodbye song’ at the end is a very good way to settle the students in and give them a clear cue when to leave. Within our school, these songs are performed by the Music Therapists. It helps that the students know us and are familiar with the songs and actions involved. However, this can easily be emulated using a video forewarning for families (if these songs are going to be included in the ‘relaxed’ performance) to access before show day.

It is standard practice now for most ‘relaxed’ shows to have their house lights on throughout and to have an open-door policy. There is a greater understanding (although the front of house staff may not always be aware) that carers need to bring bags inside the theatre with sensory supports (including crunchy food to be eaten during the show) in order to assist their child’s engagement and regulation. With increasing education, production companies are also becoming more aware that loud, sudden noises or scary characters (that our population have no forewarning about) are not our friends.

Once inside the theatre, there are additional considerations that also need to be accounted for in order for you and your family to have an enjoyable experience. When booking your ticket, it’s advisable (if you know that your child may have some acting-out behaviours or requires a lot of movement) to consider reserving seating near an aisle with ease of access to the exit. This has been successful for our students when the carer is seated on the aisle side and can easily re-direct the child to either sit back in their chair, move around the theatre or go for a ‘break’ outside the space.

Whilst in consultation with the Sydney Opera House and based on The Kennedy Centre’s model (in Washington DC) a ‘chill-out area’ has been incredibly important for those needing a ‘break’ or quiet place away from the performance space with access to additional sensory material. The close proximity of this space to the theatre is paramount, as this gives the young person with Autism every opportunity to re-enter the theatre and continue watching the show once they’ve regulated their emotions. Within this space, there will usually be the opportunity to access sensory items like fidget toys, cushions, scarves, books, headphones, puzzles etc. Most venues allow you to take these additional supports into the theatre if you feel it’ll help increase the engagement of your child. It’s ok if these are mouthed as the staff will disinfect them afterwards but please remember to give them back at the end of the show.

Access to creative arts experiences importantly contributes to the social inclusion felt by members of our disability community and is worth our extra effort. As one parent highlighted in an interview about the significance of accessing the Sydney Opera House for his family, he said: “The fact that a little girl who loves ballet can go to the ballet, a little girl who loves seeing a show can see a show, a show with beautiful songs and colour and movement, that tells a story, a fundamentally human story… I mean… that means a lot!”

Vanessa Lucas
Giant Steps Sydney
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