Sensory-friendly shows make it possible for special-needs kids to enjoy theater and ballet.
When Jayne Schroeder returned to Milwaukee in 2015, after being gone for 30 years, she looked forward to revisiting memorable experiences, such as Milwaukee Ballet’s The Nutcracker, with her kids. Schroeder worried, though, that her family wouldn’t be welcomed: Jackson, the youngest of her three children and a senior at Wauwatosa East, has Down’s syndrome and autism.
“Ballet is structured; my son is unpredictable. Attending cultural events is something that most autistic families usually can’t consider,” she says. So when Schroeder’s uncle told her about a sensory-friendly performance, “I was ecstatic.”
Companies such as Milwaukee Ballet and First Stage offer special performances in which sounds are softened, lights adjusted and some surprising elements are eliminated. They also encourage audience members to move and vocalize as much as they like.
“We strive to make our programming accessible to all,” says Brenna Kempf, director of First Stage’s Next Steps Academy, which offers classes for young people with sensory-processing disorders. “[Creating] a welcoming and understanding environment extends the transformative power of theater to more children.”
In addition to Next Steps classes, First Stage has been offering sensory-friendly adaptations of its shows since 2012, which have proven popular in the community.
And Milwaukee Ballet, which first presented a sensory-friendly production of The Nutcracker in 2016, plans to continue staging the adaptive show each year. “The dancers, staff and all the volunteers found the experience to be rewarding,” says Artistic Director Michael Pink.
Schroeder says Jackson was excited to wear his bow tie to The Nutcracker. They’d used a tool on the event web page so Jackson would know what to expect about the story, the venue and the theater. Their experience included full house lights; pre-recorded, rather than live music; quiet zones and fidget toys in the hallways, in case they needed a stimulus break; and a pre-performance meet-and-greet with costumed characters.
Performances aren’t the only difficult situations Schroeder and her son face. Many common activities can trigger an autistic child. Schroeder recalls traveling through O’Hare Airport when Jackson became overwhelmed by the lights, crowds and noise. It was one of his worst episodes, she says, with Jackson yelling, thrashing and running through the terminal. She finally corralled him into a nook and pulled every toy from her bag, trying to make a safe space for him.
“I was two inches from losing it when a woman touched my arm and said, ‘You’re doing great, Mom. My son is autistic, too.’ I really lost it then,” Schroeder says. “I realized how badly I needed to be seen, heard and not feel judged.”
Schroeder says she’s seeing a growing number of businesses and institutions consider families like hers. The new Bucks arena, for one, features seven sensory rooms, with adjustable lighting, textured walls and free data that can be used to play relaxing music. And she’s seen retailers with special-needs baskets, movie theaters with sensory-friendly matinees and grocery stores with shopping carts for special-needs patrons.
“The more we bring our kids out and share our experiences,” she says, “the better.” ◆