This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The world has changed dramatically for people with disabilities since the landmark legislation was passed in 1990. Today, access continues to expand for people with all kinds of special needs. The newest group seeing doors open for them? People on the autism spectrum.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “about 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD),” an umbrella term that includes a number of subtypes with a wide range of symptoms. Parents of kids with autism are learning to advocate for their kids, educating the public about ASD and making the world more accessible for them.
“For a person with autism, the slightest change can be extremely stressful, which can lead to outbursts and meltdowns,” says Margalit Sturm Francus, whose website, Autistic Globetrotting, chronicles her adventures with her special needs child. She’s spent years educating people about how to make their attractions and events more accessible to her child, who’s now grown.
“People with autism are unable to distinguish between what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, whether at home or in public,” she says. “They may cry, scream or even engage in injurious behavior – especially in situations outside of their daily routine.”
Theatre groups have been responding to parents’ requests by increasingly offering autism-friendly performances of their shows. The Chicago Children’s Theatre (CCT) was one of the early pioneers in making theatre accessible to kids whose behavior and aversion to sensory stimulation kept them away from live performances. CCT’s Red Kite Adventures, part of the Red Kite Project, are theatrical performances tailored to the unique needs of children affected by autism.
“We provide a non-judgmental environment, where children can talk, get up and down as often as needed or even step into what’s called ‘A Quiet Room’ to take a break from the show,” says Jacqueline Russell, CCT’s co-founder and artistic director. “We also leave the lights up in the audience so the theatre is never completely dark and make adjustments to the sound levels where necessary. To help prepare kids for the live show, every child receives a social story with images before their visit.”
Red Kite’s newest theatrical adventure, “Red Kite, Brown Box,” leads children and families on an imaginative journey where simple cardboard boxes transform into a magical world full of treasures and joy. In addition to live performances, CCT puts on a two week theatrical summer camp for kids with autism. Next summer, it will take place at Chicago’s Cleveland Elementary School (3121 W. Byron St.) from June 20 to July 8, 2016.
The strange sensory spectacle that is Blue Man Group doesn’t exactly seem like a perfect fit for kids with autism. Yet, when the troupe learned about a special performance for the autism community of the Broadway production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” Blue Man Group decided to create an autism-friendly version of its own. They teamed up with Autism Speaks last year to slightly modify one of their performances.
“The two main differences are that we’ve slightly adjusted some sound and light levels, and, more importantly, created a friendly, calming environment in our lobby where people can relax if they need a sensory break,” says Blue Man Group Chicago’s Resident General Manager Mary Grisolano.
Last year’s sold-out show was such a success, Blue Man Group will be doing another performance this fall. “We’ve heard from many families affected by autism that their children responded to the Blue Man character in a very moving way,” says Phil Stanton, Blue Man Group co-founder. “We don’t know the exact reason. We can only speculate it has to do with the Blue Men communicating in their own unique way – non-verbally, through visuals, touch and sound.”
Lifeline Theatre’s very first autism-friendly performance will take place on Nov. 21. “We have a subscriber to Lifeline with a child who has a learning disability, and in getting to know them better we saw how the art profoundly affected this child and his family,” says Erica Foster, Lifeline’s operations director and accessibility coordinator. “It made us realize that we should provide opportunities for other families who have children with social and cognitive disorders that may not always feel comfortable coming out to the theatre.”
Here’s a roundup of local theater performances kids on the autism spectrum can enjoy this season:
Chicago Children’s Theatre’s “Red Kite, Brown Box”
Sunday, Jan. 9, 1:30, 2:30 and 4 p.m.
Skokie Public Library, 5215 Oakton St., Skokie
Ticket information: [email protected]; 773-227-0180
Lifeline will have three autism-friendly performances this year:
- “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”: Saturday, Nov. 21, 3 p.m.
- “Sparky!”: Sunday, Feb. 7, 3 p.m.
- “Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters”: Sunday, April 7, 3 p.m.
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago
Ticket information: online; 773-761-4477
Sunday, Oct. 4, 4 p.m.
Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted St., Chicago
Ticket information: online; 773-348-4000