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At our first Autism Friendly Performance since Broadway reopened, families were filled with gratitude and joy
For Amy Kavanaugh and her daughter Emily, who has cerebral palsy and global developmental delays, attending TDF's Autism Friendly Performance of Come From Away in January marked a welcome return to Broadway after two challenging and isolating years. "The show shines such a light on all the goodness in the world," Kavanaugh says. "That's nice to see these days."
TDF's Autism Friendly Performances launched in 2011 at The Lion King. Since then, TDF has partnered with many of Broadway's biggest hits, including Aladdin, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked, to host these inclusive, life-changing events. Autism Friendly Performances offer a supportive environment for families with children or adults on the spectrum or diagnosed with other developmental disabilities. Experts in the field consult with the productions and suggest slight adjustments, such as the reduction of jarring sounds or strobe lights. In the theatre lobby, there are staffed break areas with fun activities in case theatregoers need to leave their seats for a bit. And TDF creates resources for each production, like character guides and social narratives, to help prepare audiences for the show.
Kavanaugh appreciates all the work and care that go into Autism Friendly Performances. "As a special needs family, we don't get out that much, and it feels wonderful to be around a theatre full of people who 'get it,'" she says. "No one cares if your kid makes noise during the performance. I smile and really relax while attending one of these TDF performances."
Kavanaugh and her family are frequent Autism Friendly Performances attendees and she admits the Broadway shutdown left a big hole in their hearts. They were not alone. Mindful of the acute loneliness and discombobulation many members of the community were experiencing, TDF kept our Autism Friendly Performances families engaged during the pandemic with interactive virtual offerings, including original musicals featuring the neurodiverse puppet Little B. created by Dr. Becca Yuré, our lead autism consultant.
"I saw the Zoom shows with Little B.," says Una Albers, a longtime program participant who is on the autism spectrum. "I liked that they had captions and sign language." Still, like most theatre lovers, she missed the excitement and energy of attending a show in person with her peers. Even though she had seen a previous Autism Friendly Performance of Come From Away on Broadway before the pandemic, Albers was thrilled to return. "I understood the story better now that I saw it a second time and used a character guide," she explains.
The audiences at Autism Friendly Performances are always enthusiastic, but at Come From Away they were positively ecstatic. It was the first time most participants had seen in-person theatre since early 2020, when TDF's last Autism Friendly Performance took place a few days before the industry shut down. Also, thematically, the show spoke to what we've all been going through. The real-life tale of how a small town in Newfoundland welcomed 7,000 stranded passengers when airplanes were grounded on September 11, 2001, the musical is about the world stopping and the healing power of community. Like everyone in the theatre, Dr. Yuré was profoundly moved. "This was the giant hug my soul needed following the long wait for the return of live theatre," she says.
Lisa Carling, Director of TDF Accessibility Programs, was also overjoyed to be reunited with Autism Friendly Performances families. "I felt so happy seeing many familiar faces again and hearing families say how much it meant to them to be at the performance," she says.
Those familiar faces weren't just in the audience—they also belonged to the many dedicated volunteers who make sure Autism Friendly Performances run smoothly.
"I was happy to see a number of returning volunteers," says Karen Wasserman, who attended Come From Away with her husband and their son Simon, who is on the spectrum. The Wassermans have been going to our Autism Friendly Performances since the first one at The Lion King in 2011. "We make a big deal of dressing up to set a tone that something special is going to happen," she says.
This spring, TDF is hosting two more Autism Friendly Performances: The Lion King on Sunday, March 6 and Aladdin on Sunday, May 1. TDF purchases every seat in the theatre for these events and makes the tickets available at discount prices exclusively to families, groups and schools with members on the autism spectrum or with developmental disabilities.
"Given Emily's special needs, finances are tight for us," says Kavanaugh. "The reduced pricing for tickets makes it possible for us see wonderful Broadway shows we would not otherwise be able to get to."
It's just one of the many ways TDF is helping make theatre welcoming and inclusive for all. Wasserman explains that while her son Simon has also attended typical performances, sometimes he has to leave at intermission due to feeling overwhelmed. At our Autism Friendly Performances, she knows he'll have extra support and understanding. "I'm glad the program is back," says Wasserman, who also serves as a volunteer when not attending with her family. "I've missed it. It gives me purpose."
Tickets to the Autism Friendly Performance of The Lion King next Sunday, March 6 at 1 p.m. are still available. Click here to purchase.
Top image: Michelle Stern and her daughter Jadyn Waiser enjoying TDF's Autism Friendly Performance of Come From Away on January 30, 2022. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.