Sensory Processing Disorder
Actors at a dress rehearsal for “Annie” by the Open Door Theatre. The community theater company includes people with special needs.
When the blue curtain opens at Open Door Theater’s Jan. 19 performance of “Annie,” the show will begin, a little differently.
The house lights will stay on, dimmed. Audience members will have stress balls to squeeze during the performance. They will be free to get up and move around during the show. And if the musical feels too overwhelming, they can escape to a quiet “chill-out” room down the hall.
This matinee is the Acton-based theater’s first autism-friendly performance, modeled after similar shows on Broadway. Actors and other involved in the play received special training developed for them by the Autism Alliance of MetroWest.
“Bright lights and loud sounds and smells, for folks that have a lot of sensory issues, can be distracting and debilitating,” said Nannette Ohman, executive director of the alliance. “They smell more, sound is louder.”
The performance at Open Door, a community theater company whose cast includes people with special needs, is one of the first in the country. Other than the Broadway shows, Open Door directors involved in the special matinee could find only two other similar performances adapted for people with autism, in California and Montana.
AMC movie theaters around the country, including in Framingham, schedule monthly sensory-friendly movie showings, where the lights stay on and the sound stays low. AMC works with the Autism Society, and their slogan for the monthly shows is: “Get Up and Dance, Walk, Shout or Sing.”
Director Teri Shea first got the idea for an autism-friendly performance after she read last spring about Broadway performances of “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins” for theatergoers with autism, reducing noise during the performance and leaving the lights on low.
“They just modulate the whole thing so it’s less intimidating, less jarring,” said Rick Woods of Lunenberg, who plays Daddy Warbucks in the Open Door musical. His 22-year-old son, Lee, who is autistic, plays a servant; other actors in “Annie” have also been diagnosed with autism. This is the third Open Door production to feature both father and son as actors.
When Lee was 7, his parents took him to see a Disney on Ice performance of “Pocahontas.” Lee had been diagnosed with autism, but the performance seemed tame — until part of the story where shots are fired.
“My son was up the aisle and out the door,” Woods said.
In “Annie,” Shea eliminated Miss Hannigan’s shrill whistle-blowing for all performances, not just the autism-friendly matinee. The theater group also got special permission to shorten the play, said J. Samatha Gould, president of Open Door’s board of directors.
Members of the autism alliance also wrote a “social story” to help autistic theatergoers understand what will happen during the musical. The 24-page, step-by-step guide, with pictures of what will happen during “Annie,” starts with an explanation that the show is like a movie, except the actors are real people on the stage.
The story gives details about the performance — it is at the Raymond J. Grey Junior High School in Acton — and describes how ushers will help audience members find their seats.
The cast includes Rick Woods, Megan Kaye, Paul Jannke, and Lee Woods, who has autism.
“When it is time for the show to start, the theatre will get darker and everyone will get quiet,” the story reads. “I will try to be as quiet as I can during the show so that I can hear everything.”
The alliance created a training session for the cast and crew, telling them that they might hear audience members making sounds during the performance. The biggest change they notice may be seeing the audience, which is usually obscured by darkness.
“The lights should be up a little bit and not completely out,” Ohman said. “We would have folks who would have an aversion to the very loud noise sit away from the orchestra.”
Long before movie theaters began to offer autism-friendly performances, the alliance rented a movie theater and held movie nights.
At “Annie,” the audience may be noisier than usual, but Shea tells the actors that every show is different. Sometimes, she says, Friday night performances are quieter than Saturday night shows because theatergoers are tired from work.
“Because ‘Annie’ is so family friendly and children oriented, I was hoping some people would be more willing to bring their child to see the show if they knew that we’d be accepting of them doing that at this performance,” Shea said.
When you give politicians the number “1 in 88,” what they hear is the “one.” They don’t hear “millions of people are struggling with autism spectrum disorders every day.”
My wife, Jacqueline, and I want to help people move beyond just understanding the autism community as a statistic and show the faces that convey the reality of this community. Evidence and Artifacts: Facing Autism is a grass-roots photographic project documenting the growing number of individuals, families, teachers, therapists, advocates, doctors and researchers on the front lines – fighting back against disability.
I try to create portraits that compel the viewer’s engagement and demand a sensitive visual inquiry of each individual’s face. In the act of looking, the viewer may experience a sense of being “seen” by these children and adults in the midst of their delight and anguish; “seen” by the fierce and loving families in their grief and hope; “seen” by the teachers and therapists in their commitment to help; “seen” by the compassionate medical professionals in their search for ways to relieve human suffering; and “seen” by the members of scientific and academic research community who are steadfastly searching for the causes and treatments of autism.
When I photograph people in the autism community, I spend 10 to 20 minutes just chatting, helping them become comfortable and developing the moment when we’re connecting – when they’re revealing some inner part of themselves to me.
It’s been interesting to discover that having the camera between us somehow eases our conversation, regardless of where the person is on the autism spectrum. I typically make several hundred frames of each person. Sometimes it’s a subtle glance that proves the most revealing.
Our daughter has an autism spectrum disorder. Our son has sensory processing issues. And I know I’m an undiagnosed Aspie. So our family is aware of the challenges that autism can present every day.
The Facing Autism project is both a way to honor those who are rising to this challenge and a call to action. Please visit my website, www.christophergauthier.com, to view more photos of these amazing people, and leave a message if you would like to learn more about the project. I am always looking for local organizations that are interested in partnering with me in expanding its reach. It’s great to be connecting with the Autism Speaks community.
Evidence and Artifacts: Facing Autism is a long-term photographic project documenting the growing number of individuals, families and invested teachers, therapists, advocates, doctors and researchers on the front lines fighting the debilitating characteristics of autism spectrum disorders. Facing Autism is both a call to action, and a way to honor those who are rising to the challenge autism presents everyday.
Public debate is intense as the nation grapples with a sense of urgency for answers regarding the causation, prevalence, and effective treatment of autism spectrum disorders that now affects at least 1:88 children in the U.S. According to the late Child Psychiatrist, Dr. Stanley Greenspan MD, “Autistic spectrum disorders are complex developmental disorders, associated with the well-known symptoms of social and communication difficulties, self-stimulatory and repetitive behaviors, and narrow or overly-focused interests. These symptoms result from underlying challenges in a child’s ability to take in the world through his senses, and to use his body and thoughts to respond to it.” In a paper written by Dr. Martha R. Herbert, MD, Autism: A Brain Disorder, Or A Disorder That Affects The Brain? Dr. Herbert states that, “Autism is defined behaviorally, as a syndrome of abnormalities involving language, social reciprocity and hyperfocus or reduced behavioral flexibility. It is clearly heterogeneous, and it can be accompanied by unusual talents as well as impairments, but its underlying biological and genetic basis is unknown. Autism has been modeled as a brain-based, strongly genetic disorder, but emerging findings and hypotheses support a broader model of the condition as genetically influenced and systemic.” Dr. Herbert acknowledges the role of environmental insults as a possible trigger for biomedical conditions that impact the varying behaviors associated with autism and indicates possible points for intervention and treatment. We believe if researchers were able to identify components of the toxic soup required to trigger vulnerable children, perhaps we could begin to stem the tide of children struggling with allergies, asthma, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism.
Evidence and Artifacts evolved from environmental spaces poisoned by toxicity, to the affected human beings, which reside in those spaces. We began this project in a desire to move past merely raising awareness about autism to taking an active role in shaping the national dialogue about the role the environment plays in human health and development. The Facing Autism portraits compel the viewer’s engagement, and demand a sensitive visual inquiry of the individual faces. In the act of looking, the viewer may experience a sense of being “seen” by the children, in their delight and anguish; “seen” by the fierce and loving families in their grief and hope; “seen” by the teachers and therapists in their commitment to the notion that all children can learn; “seen” by the compassionate medical professionals in their search for ways to relieve human suffering and “seen” by the scientific and academic research community who dare to raise disquiet in their pursuit of truth related to autism causation. This shift in perception reduces the chance of exploiting “poster children” to gain political currency, exposing those with power to the collective gaze of expectation by the autism community.
Facing Autism heralds a significant truth. The causation of the autism epidemic is yet unknown, and even as the numbers grow exponentially, the collective response seems utterly inadequate. Our children’s minds and bodies are being held hostage in the public and private battleground of the politics of autism. Our eyes are on you. We are pleading with you not to be silent in the face our urgency.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” – Robert F. Kennedy