Columbus Arts Groups Welcome Kids With Sensory Sensitivity

Michelle Sullivan

One afternoon this past summer, Maria Angel gathered her two young sons and took them to see a play. It was the first time in years she had decided to take the boys to a show without her husband. Typically, she'd take one or the other because tending to both of them at once is too much for one parent to handle. A 50-minute show won't hold the undivided attention of her oldest son, 11-year-old Max, who likes to fuss with her iPhone. And 8-year-old Kasey fidgets and often wants to switch seats multiple times during one sitting.

The thought of taking even one of her children to a play or a movie made Angel anxious. She could virtually hear the unspoken questions of other parents in the audience: Why are your kids making so much noise? Why can't they sit still? Why can't you control them? But, as Angel drove Max and Kasey to the Columbus Children's Theatre for a production of "The Frog Prince" in June, she wasn't stressed. For the first time in 11 years, Angel was looking forward to seeing a play with her sons, who both have autism.

"For parents of a child with autism or who is struggling with a disability, going out and participating in shows and movies can be more stressful than it's worth," says Angel, who would sooner avoid taking them out than subject the children to intolerance and herself to disapproving glares. That was before she discovered sensory-friendly performances at Columbus Children's Theatre, which are specifically tailored to sensitive kids like Max and Kasey.

An increasing number of arts organizations are adding sensory-friendly offerings to their traditional lineups to better accommodate children with autism and other developmental disabilities. During these performances and film screenings, lights remain on so children don't feel disoriented. Sound volume is kept low so noises aren't startling. Children are free to roam, and they're encouraged to participate and vocalize their reactions to the show. They're actually quite similar to typical performances and screenings meant for young children but with one major difference-there's no fear of being judged.

Columbus Children's Theatre began regularly incorporating sensory-friendly performances into their seasons three years ago after a parent of a child with autism made the suggestion. It's the first children's theater in Ohio to offer such programming, says artistic director Bill Goldsmith. This season, they'll offer two sensory-friendly performances of each of three different productions: "Pinocchio," "Fancy Nancy The Musical" and "The Emperor's New Clothes." The content of the shows remains the same, Goldsmith says. The only thing that changes is the environment.

"We want kids with sensory sensitivities to have a chance to come to the theater and feel safe and that they can be themselves," he says. "We don't dumb it down. We offer shows with small variations just so we don't surprise them, but they want the mainstream experience."

Live theater is a learning opportunity for children with autism. Observing and imitating actors helps improve their confidence and social skills, says Toni Johnson, development and marketing director for Columbus Children's Theatre. Johnson speaks from a parent's perspective; her daughter has autism.

"You want your children to feel accepted everywhere and not judged," she says. "The opportunity to be exposed to live theater-that's wonderful. It's very engaging."

Sensory-friendly activities aren't reserved only for live theater. AMC Lennox 24 began screening films specifically for kids and adults with developmental disabilities three years ago. On one Saturday morning each month, they'll show a film with the lights on and the sound kept low. Proceeds benefit the Autism Society.

Last summer, the Gateway Film Center began doing something similar. At 11 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month, the independent theater near the Ohio State campus screens a family-friendly movie, sans previews. They, too, merely dim the lights and keep the volume at a lower level. Families can bring in their own snacks and, while the Gateway Film Center typically employs a zero-tolerance policy with cell phone use in the theaters, spokesman Johnny DiLoretto says these events are an exception to that rule. Proceeds for these screenings benefit the Ohio State University Nisonger Center, a hub for research, treatment and programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"[Some families] may not have the opportunity to take [their kids] to the theater," says Tamara Hager, Nisonger Center manager of outreach and engagement. "With this option, the hope is to create an environment that's supportive and understanding."

Three times a year, COSI opens its doors two hours early just for children with developmental disabilities and their families. During this time, certain exhibits are modified to be less stimulating or startling. Simply having fewer people in the museum makes a big difference, says Ashely Russell, director of COSI's health and medicine initiative. The events are an effort to be more inclusive, she says.

"Sometimes we as a community develop events without thinking wholeheartedly about people with certain sensitivities and the challenges they face," Russell says. "We're being more cognizant of the fact that we have to be more inclusive."

Angel is grateful her sons are finally able to enjoy shows and exhibits just like everybody else.

"It's emotional, as a parent, to be able to watch my children experience something that before felt like it was off limits to them," she says. "It gives me an overwhelming sense of relief to finally know that the judgments, stares and comments from others are no longer part of the experience."

How it Works

Traditional theater experiences can be too stimulating for children with autism. "They don't understand how to communicate how they're feeling about it," says Tamara Hager of the Ohio State University Nisonger Center. "They're not as easily able to say, 'Mom, that's too loud,' or, 'Mom, that hurts my eyes.' Instead they have a behavioral response, fit or disruption." Some local theaters now offer performances and screenings tailored specifically to children with developmental disabilities. Here's how they create a more enjoyable experience for these sensory-sensitive kids.

Lights in the theater are either dimmed or left on so children don't feel disoriented in a completely dark theater.

Speaker volume is turned down to prevent startling noises.

Organizations don't fill their venues to capacity, ensuring there's plenty of extra seating and room to move around.

Electronic devices and personal food and beverages are permitted.

Columbus Children's Theatre provides communication cards for nonverbal guests.

The Gateway Film Center refers to their sensory-friendly theaters as "no-shush zones."