For an autistic child, the theater can be challenging. Loud noises startle. Lighting changes overwhelm. Many things the average theatergoing public takes for granted, from waiting patiently in line to sitting quietly in one's seat, can prove difficult. But Susannah Peterson, executive director of the Autism Society's South Central Wisconsin chapter, knows that these kids love storytelling, too. She set out to find a way for local children on the autism spectrum to enjoy theatrical productions much like their neurotypical peers do.
"I think there's so much about the theater that's transformative," Peterson says. "I wanted kids on the spectrum to be able to take that magic with them into their daily lives and perhaps even be inspired by a performance to participate on their own one day."
Last summer, she reached out to Children's Theater of Madison, which jumped at the idea of creating a "sensory friendly" performance for autistic kids.
"Our mission is to create vibrant theater experiences... for young people and their communities, but what communities are we talking about?" asks Erica Berman, CTM's director of education and community engagement. "The community of people with autism is one that's not always granted access."
Together, the two organizations tailored a performance of Alexander & the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day to this young audience. Based on the popular book of the same name, the show tells the story of a boy who experiences an awful day, only to discover that tomorrow brings better things.
"Alexander has some challenges throughout the day, and we know that youth with autism have to deal with that day in and day out," Peterson says.
The sensory-friendly presentation, which takes place on March 7, includes a variety of adjustments. The lights will be dimmed throughout and the volume will be lowered. Families are welcome to bring food such as gluten-free snacks, which are important to many in the autism community. There will also be "ushers": trained workers with autistic children. Fidget toys will be available, along with a quiet room families can visit throughout the show.
"We want kids to be able to take in five minutes, if that's what they can handle, or the entire show, or anywhere in between," Peterson explains.
Since families with children on the spectrum face many significant expenses, medical and otherwise, tickets for the March 7 show are being sold at a reduced price of $7.
"Our goal is for them to step into an environment where there's no judgment, where everything has been thought out for them," Berman adds.
Both CTM and the Autism Society hope families can enjoy this evening of theater together. The partners also want to offer two performances at two different shows next year. Other projects on the horizon include drama classes for autistic children and eventually a camp. Peterson wants this idea to catch on with other Madison arts organizations.
Children are invited to come an hour early to "meet their seat" and get comfortable with the theater before the show begins. These seats can be reserved online.