by Ben and Sue Fletcher-Watson
Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that every child has the right to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to their age and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. Many children can indeed participate freely in all sorts of arts events, and TYA provides a wide variety of opportunities to experience the magic of live performance. But for some children, such as those with autism spectrum conditions, theaters can be unwelcoming or even frightening places. Autism is mostly known for the associated difficulties with social interaction but a need for routine and predictability, and extreme sensitivity to sensory input are also features of the diagnosis. Thus, for these audience members, loud noises, unfamiliar spaces and dimmed lighting can conspire to produce a profoundly unsettling atmosphere. In addition, some theatres still do not actively welcome patrons who require a little help to enjoy a performance, seeing them perhaps as outside of their desired audience.
Movie theatres have improved their inclusive offerings in recent years with weekly showings for parents and babies, regular screenings for patrons with autism, and sessions aimed at toddlers or younger children. Theaters have also begun to respond to calls for more inclusive practices, although this tends to occur most on Broadway and at larger venues. However, many of the measures which could now be considered best practice in presenting inclusive arts are readily achievable by even the smallest venues.
We believe that best practice in inclusive arts can apply to all audiences. If our culture is to become truly inclusive, we need to stop dividing patrons into neat categories like “young kids”, “the elderly” and “the disabled” – instead, we should recognize that access to the arts is a right for all, and that to accommodate everyone is to respect everyone as human beings.
Below is a short list of standard provision for autism-friendly performances (also known as relaxed performances) – groups like Autism Friendly Spaces use these measures when working with companies to create inclusive arts events such as the relaxed performance of Mary Poppins in New York in April 2012:
• reduced price tickets reflecting the need for carers to accompany audience members
• trained helpers on hand in the theatre and lobby, providing comfort and help to families – these could be local college students, special education experts, social workers or ushers with an interest in inclusive arts
• ‘parking spaces’ in the lobby for walking frames and strollers
• downloadable social stories (also called visual stories) – these can be brief character guides / song lists, or longer documents with photographs of the theater, accompanying Makaton symbols (as used by many children with disabilities) and a description of what will happen from when they enter the venue to when the show ends
• a T-loop or hearing aid loop
• a short welcome and introduction to the stage – some venues provide touch tours of the set for partially-sighted visitors, while others choose to demonstrate any surprises which will appear, such as trapdoors or flown scenery, in order to let spectators prepare for the upcoming experience
• house lights kept on to avoid upsetting audiences by plunging them into darkness
• making small changes to the show itself, including removing strobe lights (a potential trigger for photo-sensitive epilepsy), lowering the tap sounds of certain dance numbers, softening transitions and lowering the pitch of some songs
• calm spaces or activity areas in the lobby, where overwhelmed children can sit and watch a live stream of the show if they need to leave the auditorium
• coloring books, puzzles, games and quiet toys for fidgety patrons
• signalers on either side of the stage with glow sticks to warn theatregoers of upcoming loud noises, or to signal that clapping is ahead
• free handouts or downloadable activity sheets to continue to explore the world of the show at home or at school
Such changes allow entire families to enjoy a positive theater experiences together, without concern that their child may disrupt the performance for others. This factor – a fear that their child’s normal behavior will be harshly judged – is often cited by parents as the main barrier to accessing the arts. While designed initially to enhance autism-friendly performances, the majority of inclusive measures are equally appropriate in Theatre for Early Years (for children under 5) and for the new phenomenon of baby-friendly adult theatre. Theatre for Early Years has grown in popularity over the last thirty years, but it was not until inclusive practices began to infiltrate traditional venues that the genre became mainstream. Something as simple as a friendly welcome from the ushers can make all the difference to a new parent.
It may seem like some of these practices undermine the magic and delightful surprises on which TYA is built, but the more a child can understand of an experience, the more they can enjoy it. The unrealistic expectation that children should behave like adults, sitting quietly in serried rows, seen and not heard, is the reason that many venues have not traditionally welcomed children. As adults, it is our duty to help children to feel part of the arts, and that means making some small changes. In time, they will come to love the arts as much as we do, and they will turn into respectful and captivated spectators like us. But if we don’t accommodate them, the old image of a crying child running out of the theater will remain, and attitudes towards disability or dismissing TYA as ‘kids’ stuff’ will persist.
Ben Fletcher-Watson is researching Theatre for Early Years at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, UK. He studied directing and dramaturgy at Emory University in Atlanta, GA and has worked in the arts for a decade, including building and managing a theatre for children in North-East England. His research is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, and sponsored by Starcatchers and Imaginate. Please visit his blog at theatreforbabies.tumblr.com to find out more.
Sue Fletcher-Watson is a developmental psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Her research focuses on applied work with and for the autism community, including technology-based intervention and research into the earliest signs of autism in infancy. Please visit her research group, DART, to find out more.