Central Ohio Arts Groups Serve Special-Needs Families

Melissa Kossler Dutton
Brady Smalley, 12, explores pre-concert activities with his mom, Sarah Smalley, at the New Albany Symphony Orchestra's March 10 performance.

When Sarah Smalley heard about the New Albany Symphony Orchestra's sensory-friendly concerts, it was music to her ears.

As a parent of two boys who are on the autism spectrum, the Dublin mom is always eager to find interesting events for the family. An orchestra performance where the house lights are left on, the volume is toned down and the audience is invited to get up and move around or leave seemed like an ideal setting for her children, ages 9 and 12.

“It was everything I had ever hoped for and imagined. My sons are mesmerized by the orchestra, as well as the soloists and dancers they feature in the shows,” Smalley said. “And because of the specialset-up of these sensory-friendly concerts, my boys can completely be themselves, and I don't have to worry that we will disrupt someone else's experience with our sounds or movement.”

The orchestra is just one option available to the Smalleys and other families seeking arts-oriented entertainment with accommodations for people with special needs. Columbus Children's Theatre (CCT), Ohio History Connection and several area movie theaters, including Gateway Film Center, also regularly offer sensory-friendly programming.

The number of events and performances available to children with special needs has grown steadily over the last five years, said Sara Walker, who moved to Pickerington in 2012. She and her son, Tristan, 9, have attended special movie screeningsat the Marcus Pickerington Cinema and CCT play performances. Tristan, who is on the autism spectrum, enjoys the events and has made new friends, Walker said. “It gives us so much to do,” she said. “It makes us feel included in the community.”

That's the purpose of the sensory-friendly events, said Heather Garner, executive director of the New Albany Symphony, which started offering the performances during the 2015-16 season. Garner loves seeing families coming to the shows and enjoying them together. “We've just taken away a lot of the barriers that make people feel uncomfortable about attending,” she said. “Music is a great therapy for a lot of these families. I don't want anyone to feel like they can't attend for any reason.”

That acceptance means a lot, Smalley said. “Everyone there is understandingbecause they have also chosen this sensory-friendly experience,” she said. “My sons can wearheadphones when it gets too loud without judgment. They can get out of their seats and jump or dance when they feel the need. They can hum or sing along. They can enjoy the music in their very own unique ways.”

At Columbus Children's Theatre, staff members believe everyone should have access to live theater, said marketing manager Rachel Flenner. CCT offers two sensory-friendly performances for each of its mainstage shows. The storyline remains the same, but the company makes other adjustments, including keeping the lights up and trying to prepare the audience for loud noises. Patrons also are allowed to exit the theater during the shows, which is normally a no-no. “With a sensory-friendly performance, it's an extremely open environment,” Flenner said. “We're very accepting.”

CCT works with its actors to prepare them for the special shows, said development manager Kati Serbu. “We train our performers to be ready for anything,” she said.

Staff training is key to making the experience enjoyable for everyone, saidTracey L. Peyton, managing director of the Strand Theatre & Cultural Arts Association. The historic theater in Delaware launched a sensory-friendly movie series in March.

Before the first show, Peyton and her staff underwent training with theOhioCenter for Autism and Low Incidenceas well as the DelawareCountyBoard of Developmental Disabilities. They lower the sound and raise the lights during the special screenings, which occur in the mornings when no other movies are playing. Peyton said she and her team are excited they can create an environment that will be welcoming to a new audience—one that may not be able to tolerate traditional screenings. “Something we all take for granted—going to the movies—can cause a lot of strain. Some of our patrons don't hear and view things the same way we hear and view things. Just getting out and going to a movie causes stress,” Peyton said. “There's something about walking into a theater and smelling the popcorn and seeing a movie on the big screen, I think everybody should be able to engage in that.”

The opportunity to attend sensory-friendly movies has been helpful to Tristan in several ways, his mother said. After attending a few events and learning what to expect, he now can attend traditional screenings, Walker said. The experience also has created opportunities for Tristan to connect with friends and new acquaintances. “ ‘What's your favorite movie?' is one of his favorite questions to ask someone. He has learned that that is a good way to start a conversation,” Walker said. “It opens up a dialogue that your child can have with other children or an adult. He needs something that they can find common ground on.”

Ginny Bryan, the information and referral coordinator at the Autism Society of Central Ohio, praised the growing availability of arts offerings for those with special needs. “For a person with autism spectrum disorder, many of the activities we take for granted can be challenging.These sensory-friendly options allow our families to go out into the community to enjoy a family outing together as a family unit, which is really important,” she said.