Chicago Children’s Theater makes performance Autism friendly

Chicago Children’s Theatre’s first­-ever autism­ friendly performance of “The Elephant &
the Whale” went off without a hitch on May 4 with children dancing to the player-­piano­-like
soundtrack and shrieking with laughter throughout the show.

It was a rare chance for parents of children with any of the autism spectrum disorders to
have an afternoon out free from the fear of judgment or disrupting the performance.

Betty Monk, 62, or “Grandma Betty,” was there with her grandchildren, Piper, 7, and
Finn, 5.

“It’s just fun to be able to take the kids to plays,” Monk said. “The kids are just wondering
how they’re going to get an elephant on stage.”

Because children with any any degree of autism don’t always understand social cues, their reactions can be unpredictable. It isn’t easy for families to go to shows with loud noises and surprising special effects.

With that in mind, the directors of “The Elephant & the Whale” made a few tweaks to the
show. The actors’ microphones were lowered; some sound effects were nixed. The water
usually sprayed on audience members and an entrance from the back of the theater also hit the
cutting room floor. Everything was a little softer.

Or as actress Kasey Foster, 31, who played the Elephant, said, “You act like you don’t
want to wake a baby up.”

And the show didn’t lack for the lowered sounds and lopped­off special effects. While a
little dark, the heart of the show survived without the extra effects.

The audience was a mix of parents, grandparents, children, with and without autism spectrum disorders, and a few industry professionals. Before the show, families passed the time in the lobby singing along with volunteers to songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Old McDonald” accompanied by ukulele.

Beyond the changes to the show itself, a room in the lower level of the theater was converted to a “quiet room” outfitted with different activities and a puppet show for anyone who needed a break from the performance.

Chicago Children’s Theatre also prepared a “social story” for families beforehand to prepare the children for event. Almost like an itinerary, the social story explained what the performance would be like, from the layout of the lobby to the structure of the show.

Autism­ friendly performances aren’t new territory for the theater world. In New York, The Theater Development Fund sells discount tickets for families with children who have autism to the modified Broadway musicals “Mary Poppins” and “The Lion King.” But for Chicago’s theater scene, these types of performances are something a few other companies are just starting to look into.

Leslie Shook, theatre manager for DePaul University’s Theatre School, said she was at
the performance to see how the staff handled the children.

“[Chicago Playworks] does performances with audio description and American Sign
Language,” Shook said. “A lot of kids come, but this [performance] is a very different thing.”

A few of the families who attended were veterans of Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Red
Kite Camp, a three­-week -long summer camp the nonprofit holds for children with autism
spectrum disorders. While separate from the Red Kite Camp, autism ­friendly performances
could become more regular for the theatre organization.

“This is probably the start of something big.” said Heidi Schubert, 30, a long­-time Chicago
Children’s Theatre volunteer. “There is definitely an audience for it.”

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