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How TDF's Autism Friendly Performances Changed the Sweeneys' Lives

Date: Nov 20, 2018

Katie Sweeney talks about her son Dusty's incredible theatrical journey, off-stage and on


At TDF, we do a lot more than sell discount tickets. Our many Accessibility Programs help audiences with specific needs enjoy the power of the performing arts. While we often use statistics to give donors a sense of the impact our initiatives are having, numbers can't tell the whole story. Only people can, and Katie Sweeney wants to share hers. We hope her heartfelt words will inspire you to give to our Accessibility Programs this holiday season, so more families like Katie's can experience the life-changing magic of theatre.

Raven Snook: I know you're a huge theatre lover and that you took your son Dusty, who's on the autism spectrum, to a few Broadway shows before you found TDF. What was that like?

Katie Sweeney: We went to Beauty and the Beast and he made it through the whole show, although he wanted to leave the whole time. He had behaviors, obviously, but at that matinee performance there were a lot of behaviors going on, kids ages 2 to whatever doing whatever, so nobody batted an eye. The fact that Dusty was trying to take his socks and shoes off was no big deal. That said, it was not a relaxing experience whatsoever. We had a lot of anxiety. Being a Broadway connoisseur myself and having been to hundreds of shows, the thought of possibly having to leave with him was devastating to me.

And that's exactly what happened at our second show, a popular musical revival where we were asked to leave. Dusty knew the score. He had listened to the original cast album hundreds of times, so he knew every word. We were in box seats by ourselves and he was scripting [reciting the words] quietly. I strategically picked those seats for a reason, because I didn't want him to disrupt the experience for anyone in the audience. I didn't even think about the people backstage. They're the ones who asked us to leave.

Raven: That must have been really upsetting.

Katie: That doesn't capture the depth of emotional rejection that I still feel today when I think about what happened. It was probably the most profoundly isolating moment that I've had on this journey with Dusty. I can't speak for him -- and he can't speak for himself -- but I would imagine it was right up there for him, too. I had to drag him out of the theatre and he was screaming. He didn't want to go. It basically stopped the show.

Raven: What happened afterward? Did you send an email to the producers about the treatment you received?

Katie: No, I did nothing. I was shattered. At first I didn't even tell anybody other than my family and a few good friends, including Sandy Kresch, the Vice Chair of TDF, whom I've known for a long time. She was the one who first gave me a heads-up that you guys were going to do Autism Friendly Performances. All of a sudden the world opened up. I thought, oh my gosh, finally someone cares enough to do this! It totally reframed my view of Broadway from exclusive to inclusive.


Raven: You and Dusty attended TDF's first-ever Autism Friendly Performance, which was The Lion King, back in 2011, right?

Katie: We did. He's now seen the show eight times -- we've gone to every single Autism Friendly Performance of it. It's like family when I go back there. He's seen Wicked multiple times, Aladdin three or four times. We go to all your Autism Friendly Performances. The only one we didn't go to was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Dusty is really musical -- I don't know what he absorbs or comprehends in terms of spoken word. He has perfect pitch. He's a great singer -- I can't say the same thing for me or his father!

It's been amazing to see how Dusty has evolved, from being thrown out of a theatre to Autism Friendly Performances to now being able to go to regular performances of Cats, The King and I, SpongeBob, Kinky Boots and Wicked. I'm still a little nervous when I bring him to regular performances. I pick my shows and seats carefully because I'm still stung by what happened.

Raven: Are there any moments at the theatre with Dusty that stick out in your mind as particularly memorable and meaningful?

Katie: I have two great stories. Last year we went to see Wicked at a regular performance. We were like fifth row center orchestra and I was a little nervous. I was holding his hand and, toward the end of the second act, during "For Good" when the two witches sang to each other: "Because I knew you, I have been changed for good," he picked up my hand and kissed it. Where did this come from? He had never done anything like that before. It was clear he was really comprehending and understanding, that it was touching him and it was his way of thanking me. The other moment was in the middle of the second act of The Lion King at an Autism Friendly Performance. During "Endless Night," he started singing and, all of a sudden, he got this really anguished look on his face and clenched his fists and I thought, oh my god, he's going to lose it. So I held my breath and then the song ended and he unclenched his fists and unclenched his anguished face and smiled, and I realized he had become Simba in that moment. He was feeling Simba's torment.

Raven: Dusty sounds like quite the budding actor.

Katie: He is. For the past two years, he's been involved with CO/LAB Theater Group, which makes theatre accessible on the other side of the footlights. They have free acting classes for the developmentally disabled population and they do shows. To witness Dusty develop as an audience member and now as a performer though CO/LAB, it's a phenomenal growth. And I can thank TDF for starting us on this journey.

Find out more about TDF's Accessibility Programs including our Autism Friendly Performances, and then consider making a donation to support what we do.

Watch Katie's 2016 TEDxBroadway Talk "Theater for All."


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Dusty and Katie Sweeney at an Autism Friendly Performance of The Lion King. Photo courtesy of Katie Sweeney.

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