My cousin loves ceiling fans. He’s so fascinated by them that he makes his own fans out of Legos and plastic forks. He loves doing that so much that he calls himself “Forkfan.” Nearing 40 years old, Forkfan lives alone in an apartment.
He keeps himself busy buying and selling old fans on eBay. He also listens to the hundreds of old recordings he’s made of family and friends at social gatherings. He likes listening to these again and again, at a quiet volume with the ability to start and stop it as he needs to. Forkfan, if you haven’t guessed, is autistic.
Part of the reason he likes to listen to these old recordings is that he really does want to participate in social gatherings, but the lights and sounds are really hard for him to process. Sounds like rain on a window, a lawnmower or even conversational chatter are things we might drown out or not even notice, but they can feel extremely loud to kids and adults like my cousin. Bright lights can feel the same. It’s often physically painful to them.
Children and adults with autism and other sensory-processing conditions tend to avoid community events. Parents of these children have come to expect the consequences of loud sights and sounds. It often means having to leave wherever they are early because of a really scared kid.
Nancy Schaeffer, education and associate artistic director at Dallas Children’s Theater (DCT) has been with the theater for over 30 years now. She says parents would often comment on how much they loved the offerings at DCT, but wished their kids with sensory issues could participate.
Lights and sounds are often overwhelming, and sitting still and quiet presents its own challenges for the kids. In 2013 DCT decided to do something to make sure every child who wanted to attend a show could do so while feeling safe and included.
Thanks to a grant from Theatre Communications Group, DCT was able to start tweaking productions to include children with sensory conditions. Schaeffer says that involves a lot more than just turning down lights and sound, though those are important components.
“Sensory-friendly” shows at Dallas Children’s Theater provide tip sheets for parents, a step-by-step explanation of what the kids will see and what will happen, and a quiet room for kids to escape to if it still becomes too much. Schaeffer says it’s also a matter of changing each technical element for the production, which is time and labor intensive.
In 2015, the Crystal Charity Ball made these sensory-friendly productions their recipient so that DCT could not only keep producing shows for all children, but also continue educating themselves and their peers about this kind of inclusiveness. DCT now hosts other organizations in discussions and workshops about what it takes to make programming inclusive for children of varying needs.
Local partners such as Autism Speaks; the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities University of Texas Southwestern and Children’s Health Centers; the Neuropsychology Service of Children’s Health Dallas; and The University of North Texas, including the Kristin Farmer Autism Center, have contributed considerable expertise. They are educating, advising, volunteering and getting the word out to the families who need this programming.
In material provided by DCT titled “Sensory Stories,” DCT shares the experiences of parents whose children are affected by sensory issues. A child with Down syndrome and stroke-related hemiparesis and seizures can find a theater experience terrifying.
“What most children consider loud-but-tolerable sounds send him reeling," the pamphlet says of one child named Kory. "When the lights go dark in a room, he loses his sense of where his body is in space. Flashing lights can send his body into convulsions. Crowded spaces can cause him extreme discomfort, and he often yells out when frustrated or happy. When Kory and his family went to a standard performance of The Nutcracker in Plano, he started crying and the family had to leave early.”
These are the stories that drive home the importance of inclusive experiences: They matter as much to parents as they do to their children. Patrons have to request tickets to these special performances, so everyone who attends knows they won’t be given questioning or judgmental looks if they have to take their child out, or if the child makes noise.
Schaeffer says DTC hasn't entirely figured the program out, and they are increasingly grateful for the support they’ve received, which allows them to keep fine-tuning this program. Ongoing training and education help the staff to understand the needs of these audiences. If a child needs headphones or to move around that’s just fine. Providing a safe and comfortable space for patrons with differing needs is the name of the game at DCT.
“We are just trying to do the best we can with joy and love,” says Schaeffer.
The 2016–17 season offers seven sensory-friendly performances, as will the following two seasons. Upcoming sensory-friendly shows include:
A Charlie Brown Christmas
1:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3
Julie B. Jones is Not a Crook
1:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18
Kathy Burks’ Theatre of Puppetry Arts Presents Jack and the Beanstalk
4:30 p.m. Saturday, March 4
Tomas and the Library Lady
1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25
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1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 29
James and the Giant Peach
1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 13
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale
1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 8
For more information, please go to dct.org/sensory or call 214–740–0051.