Susan's Blog

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Can you feel the love on October 11?

Family-friendly Broadway is nothing new, and its success is no surprise. But autism-friendly Broadway is a stroke of marketing genius. Billed as “judgment-free, ” these shows generally offer a stimuli-sensitive environment: low light and sound, quiet space, autism specialists available for extra support.

There have been pockets of such performances offered around the country in the last six years but Theater Development Fund’s (TDF) Autism Theatre Initiative has taken the concept to a new level. TDF has been funding overwhelmingly popular performances – most recently the Lion King — at venues like Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater and the Autism Speaks-Boston Opera House venture on October 11. The Madison Square Garden Lion King on September 28 apparently sold out in just days.

I am of course, a veteran autism mom – Nat is almost 25 – and this kind of trend is, well, music to my ears. When Nat was a child, he didn’t even get to go to school in his hometown, let alone participate in any normal after school fun. For Nat, rather than taking an art class like his brothers did, or a group music lesson, everything Nat did was  therapeutic — music therapy, art therapy. Or I had to pay big bucks for a one-to-one, which I only did for Sunday School because back then that synagogue had no special needs curriculum. I did organize an autism spectrum soccer team, but the coaches gravitated towards the less autistic teammates and left Nat in the dust. One year he was taught to tolerate wearing a costume so that he could be in the class play. Everyone could say he was being included, but was he? It just seemed so — fake.

Still, I never gave up looking for a welcoming place where Nat could really participate, like any other kid. And every now and then we did manage a family outing to a movie, with no behaviors, no outbursts, and with a lot of positive reinforcement. In the safe accepting dark of the theater we’d dole out a piece of popcorn to him every few minutes that he was quiet. Back then our goal was usually getting through things – enjoyment took a back seat. “Declare victory then get the hell out,” my husband would say.

I will readily admit that I had serious problems with being oversensitive to anyone looking at Nat cross-eyed. I have intolerance-for-Nat radar that may be highly tuned to a faulty. So I was not much help when it came to joining with organizations that offered kid experiences. Still I yearned for a time when we didn’t have to explain Nat and watch his every move and try to intercept his autism so that everyone else could enjoy their lives. I faulted society for being intolerant and clueless. But most of the time, I faulted myself for being unable to give him more of a normal life.

Wow, have things changed. Not to sound cynical, but autism is big business. And yes, many more people really care about our guys and want to help them enjoy our world. So I am cheering for the autism-friendly Lion King performances — not only because I love the show, but because of the attention and respect being given to kids like Nat. Yes, it is a separate performance, but it is the real deal. And I have made my peace with the fact that with autism, sometimes inclusion simply means having the same experience as other people.  Sure, I wish that every performance in every theater could be autism-friendly. Yes, there is still a stony part of me that is resentful of the generally autism-unfriendly world. But, hey, one step at a time. You know – Hakuna Matata.


I have friends who have attended this in NY, and it’s the real thing. They’ve shared that their son would never be able to attend an entire show unless it was in this kind of format. Makes me happy too, and although I’ve only been doing the autism gig for eleven years, I think generally things have gotten better too!

— added by kim mccafferty on Wednesday, October 1, 2014 at 1:13 pm

This made me very happy! But Nat cannot be 24 years old? Impossible;)

Ben will be a teenager this next year and he was in early childhood when I first read MPWA (it has forever changed my world-thank you).

Thanks for continuing to share.


— added by Molly on Monday, October 6, 2014 at 8:27 pm

Aw, Molly. You’re sweet and I’m glad you still read me.

— added by Susan Senator on Monday, October 6, 2014 at 11:02 pm

When we lived in NYC, I kept hoping we’d get to attend a TDF production. Sadly the tickets to shows I wanted to bring Teo to (considerably cheaper than for regular shows) always sold out within an hour of going live. It’s a really great program, though, which is why I have fingers crossed we’ll get to live in NYC again some day.

— added by Vickie on Thursday, October 9, 2014 at 1:44 pm

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