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Associated Press feature on upcoming autism-friendly shows presented by TDF's Autism Theatre Initiative

Date: Feb 08, 2012
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by Mark Kennedy

AP, New York City - Two more autism-friendly performances of Broadway musicals will be offered this spring and fall following the success last year of the first showing of a Broadway show specially altered for those diagnosed with the disorder.

The Theatre Development Fund, a nonprofit organization focused on providing access to live theater, said Tuesday it plans to offer specially designed matinee showings of "Mary Poppins" on April 29 and "The Lion King" on Sept. 30.

The move comes after the Fund got enthusiastic feedback from grateful families when it launched a pilot effort in October with an autism-friendly showing of "The Lion King."

"It went so much better than any of us had hoped," said Victoria Bailey, the Fund's executive director. "The value of being able to go to the theater as a family with kids on the autism spectrum and their siblings in an environment that felt safe was huge."

Autism disorders strike one in 100 children, according to U.S. government estimates. Children with the diagnosis are often sensitive to loud noises and harsh lights and find it difficult to sit still or remain quiet. Autism spectrum disorders include both severe and relatively mild symptoms.

After news of the initial performance of "The Lion King," about 1,500 people expressed interest in additional shows, organizers said.

"It says to me that there is an enormous pent-up desire for this," Bailey said. "There's a huge need."

The Fund, which has bought out both theaters for the special dates, will offer tickets at discount prices from its website. It said the "Mary Poppins" performance at the 1,797-seat New Amsterdam Theatre is nearly sold out and tickets to the performance of "The Lion King" at the 1,677-seat Minskoff Theatre will go on sale in late spring.

Both shows, presented by Disney Theatrical Productions, will be slightly altered to make those with autism more comfortable, including cutting jarring sounds and strobe lights. Quiet areas with beanbag chairs and coloring books, staffed by autism experts, also will be created inside the theater for those who might feel overwhelmed.

To accommodate the special audience, experts identified several moments in "The Lion King" when the sound or lights needed to be toned down, but none was more than 30 percent softened. There were seven changes in all, including the volume adjusted down in the opening number, on steam blasts and on Mufasa's roar at the Elephant Graveyard. Actors walking in the aisles were kept, to the delight of the audience.

The Fund, which has consulted an advisory panel of experts in the field of autism, has also made itself available to consult with other theaters attempting their own autism-friendly performances. It also publishes a downloadable guide telling children with autism what to expect during the show, including what ushers do and what to do during a curtain call.

Organizers learned some lessons after the initial performance, including that some families can stay only for part of the show and that there's a need to warn theatergoers about any props or set design that might move over the seats. Converting bathrooms for unisex use also will be attempted this time to accommodate children and their parents.

The team has learned how to make "The Lion King" accommodating to those with the developmental disorder and now they must tackle "Mary Poppins."

"We're working with that creative team to figure out where the tweaks need to be in the performance," Bailey said. "You have to listen really carefully. You have to provide the service and let the people who know the expertise help you."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be publishe