Grover doing the “Michigan is Listening” pose outside of the Fox Theatre.
For most children, attending a special event like “Sesame Street Live” is an outing filled with songs, laughter and, if they’re lucky, a hug from Elmo or Cookie Monster.
Children with autism may be at the same event, but they sometimes see things in an entirely differently way. A sudden change in lighting, the huge amount of sensory stimulation and sudden, loud noises like confetti cannons may cause an adverse reaction, upsetting the child and parent.
That is why this Friday’s 7 p.m. performance of “Elmo Makes Music” is a milestone. The show will be presented as what is being called an Autism Friendly Performance, a first for the Fox Theatre. The goal is to both help families feel comfortable within this environment and to educate staffers, performers and audience members on what makes the theater experience more enjoyable for children with autism spectrum disorders and other sensory difficulties.
“It is impressive that this iconic theater is standing up for autism and has the courage to support this initiative,” said Stefan Kogler, one of the event’s organizers and co-communications chair for Autism Speaks, North America’s largest autism science and advocacy organization.
Kogler also is parent to Brogan, his 12-year-old son with autism. Kogler said it is notable that nothing was changed in this performance of “Sesame Street Live” to make it palatable to these families. Rather, the VEE Corporation, the producers of Sesame Street Live, and Olympia Entertainment worked with Autism Speaks to ensure a pleasant, successful experience for those in attendance.
For example, the theater is providing production notes to parents ahead of time, to prepare their children for what to expect, should anything be a potential trigger. Quiet areas will be set up inside the venue to allow families to take a break for a few minutes and extra spacing will be incorporated in some seating areas to allow for room to move around. Also, gluten-free concession food options will be made available.
These are small changes for sure, Kogler said. But they make a world of different to a family that might otherwise decide staying home is easier than a trip out.
“In many cases, it’s difficult to go out as a family because we’re not sure how Brogan is going to react to the environment,” Kogler explained. “Someone might think he’s acting out. They look at me like I’m a bad parent. I’ve had people ask me why I’m not disciplining him.”
Helping Brogan and others learn to adjust to their surroundings also is an important part of working with them, so having an autism-friendly environment provides a safe zone to do so, Kogler added. And he’s come a long way since his diagnosis at age 4. In fact, Kogler jokes that while his son was largely silent until then, “we cannot keep him quiet” now.
A long-term goal for Austim Speaks is to enlist more venues to join this effort. This is one facet of its “Michigan is Listening” initiative, which began last July. The initiative is a statewide awareness program that asks the people of Michigan to pledge to tell 10 people about autism.
Since then, groups including the Palace of Auburn Hills and all of Michigan’s White Castle restaurants have stepped up to become destinations that have committed to offering welcoming environments to individuals on the spectrum.
“We wanted to partner with locations around the state that are committed to making their environment autism-family friendly. We were really pleased with how Olympia Entertainment and Tom Wilson (President and Chief Executive Officer of Olympia Entertainment) embraced this idea,” Kogler said.
“If everyone in the state just told 10 people about autism, it would be such a help in raising awareness, helping families receive an early diagnosis and give these kids a fighting chance. The more educated we are the better,” Kogler said.
Olympia Entertainment, a Detroit-based company owned by entrepreneurs Michael and Marian Ilitch, is one of the country’s most diverse sport and entertainment companies and the largest organization of its kind in the mid-west. The company owns and operates Detroit’s Fox Theatre, City Theatre and also books and operates Joe Louis Arena and books Comerica Park.
Tickets ($35, $22, $17 and $9) are on sale now. A portion of the proceeds from the sales of select tickets ($9 to $22 range) will be donated to Autism Speaks and can be purchased by calling the Olympia Entertainment, Inc. Group Sales department at 313.471.3099. Tickets are available to all members of the public and purchasers should specify they are interested in the Autism-friendly performance.