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With Sensory-Friendly Performances, Children's Theatre Of Charlotte Welcomes Kids With Autism

Going to a play can be tough for any kid. After all, theaters are normally places where you're supposed to sit still and be quiet.

But for kids on the autism spectrum, the dark lighting and loud noises can make it especially difficult to have a good theatergoing experience - for them and their families. Children's Theatre of Charlotte is trying to change that. It's among several theaters nationwide that have started offering sensory-friendly performances. WFAE's Sarah Delia and Michael Tomsic caught a show recently.

Normally when you go to a play, the only thing that’s handed to you is a program. But at certain Children’s Theatre plays inside ImaginOn, you just might get a toy.

Adam Montague stood ready with a bin full of stuffed animals, squishy objects and other items.

"If you want to switch out during the show, we'll have these in the theater, OK?" he said.

"What are these for?" a kid asked as he picked up headphones.

"Headphones in case things get too loud in there," Montague replied.

The toys in this case are really tools that are an essential part of a sensory-friendly performance. Children with autism can be overwhelmed by loud noises, and they also tend to fidget. Instead of expecting them to adapt to the theater, Children's Theatre adapts to them.

Audrey and Noel Midthun are in the audience with their kids: 8-year-old Connor and 11-year-old Genevieve. Connor was diagnosed with autism about four years ago. This is their first time seeing a performance like this at the Children’s Theatre. 

Sarah Diener coordinates these performances. Before each show she also explains to the audience how they're different. Kids are welcome to make noise and get up if they need to. Diener raises glow sticks during parts of the performance to signal a light change or loud noise. The kids can handle it better if they know what’s coming. Also, the theater intentionally undersold its tickets, so kids have more room to move around.

Diener brought the idea for these sensory-friendly performances with her when she moved to Charlotte about three years ago. Her previous theater in Minnesota realized the need. 

"I think that one thing about having kids on the spectrum is that you don't feel comfortable coming to see a show and asking for those adjustments that need to be made can feel like you are putting a burden on an organization," she said. "I think it was on us to step up."

Theaters in San Diego, Houston and Pittsburgh have also stepped up in this way. They got help from the Theatre Development Fund in New York City.

Lisa Carling oversees autism initiatives for the fund. It put on Broadway’s first sensory-friendly performance in 2011.

"A guideline for us is capping the sound at 90 decibels, eliminating strobe lights, for instance, and keeping the house lights at at least 30 percent up," Carling said. "This is to help our volunteers so they can spot a meltdown if it's occurring and get in there and help."

Different theaters do this in slightly different ways, and Carling says that’s good. Children’s Theatre of Charlotte didn’t work with the fund but did partner with experts in the local autism community.

The first step is understanding autism spectrum disorder. Nancy Popkin is a resource specialist with the Autism Society of North Carolina. She says the disorder affects how the brain processes information.

"Taking it in from the environment: what you hear, what you see, smell, taste, feel," she explained, "even something called proprioception, which has to do with your body and space - all that information comes in, and your brain has to do something with it."

For kids with autism, it’s much easier for their senses to get overwhelmed. Popkin said that can lead to what she calls shutdowns or meltdowns, which is why it’s so important to have performances that are sensory-friendly. The shows also are, just, friendly. They aim to create a judgment-free space.

Popkin appreciates that. She has a son with autism. 

"Whenever parents go someplace with their child with autism, it's stressful," she said. "You are constantly feeling like you're being judged as a parent. And so to go someplace to not worry, it actually allows you to parent better. That fosters a better relationship with your child because they're not being redirected and corrected every two seconds, which is a horrible - it's not fun."

That brings us back to the Midthun family at the Children’s Theatre. At one point Connor started to get a little restless and distracted. 

That’s where usher Hailey Powers came in. She walked over with a box of toys.

"I was just handing out some of these fidgets to them in case they were overwhelmed," Powers said. 

Connor picked one of those squishy objects, which kept his hands occupied while he focused on the play. It worked: he watched the rest of the play with no problems. But if he had needed to step out, there was another option: a designated quiet room full of fidget toys and beanbag chairs. (The enveloping nature of the beanbags can be comforting.)

The Midthun family had a very positive experience. 

"To be able to get out of your house and do something like a 'normal family' is really, really important," Audrey Midthun said. "I feel like having options like this is super important for those families to not feel so isolated - to be able to do things with other people, get out in the world and show their kids there are things outside the walls of their homes."

Samantha Perryman, a 10-year-old on the spectrum, also enjoyed the play. She was there with her sister and their parents, Jeff and Heather Perryman. They’ve tried going to other plays but say it’s been really tough. Heather said this was a big family moment.

"We've been to so many things where they don't accept the children like this," Heather said. "It's nice and refreshing to see something like this."

"For families that are dealing with whatever it may be," Jeff added, "autism or ADHD or Down syndrome or something, to have a place that was willing to do this, to have performers that are willing to give their time, I can't say enough good things about them. That's just: thank you, thank you, thank you."

Children’s Theatre doesn’t expect to make money off this. It’s the first season doing one sensory-friendly performance for every play, and staff estimates it may be a wash.

The Theatre Development Fund in New York says it loses about $20,000 every time it does one of these on Broadway. But everyone we talked to said that’s not the point. It’s about making plays accessible.

Part of that is staying true to the play. Actor Joe Hernandez said from his perspective, not that much changed.

"There were some louder and bigger moments where we go into the audience that we adjusted and we stayed on the stage," Hernandez said. "From the director’s perspective, she asked us to continue to give the show that we’d normally give - same type of energy."

But the confetti cannon that's usually part of the play sat this one out. 

For families like the Perrymans and Midthuns, these performances aren’t just a source of entertainment. They are a lifeline to the Charlotte community.

A full schedule is available herefor sensory-friendly performances at the Children's Theatre. The Charlotte Ballet will also have a sensory-friendly performance of the Nutcracker on December 21.  

Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.