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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Lion King (Autism-Friendly-style)



This was big.

What was the big deal?  I don't know.  But it was.  It was a big deal.  You play back all the rejection in your mind...kicked out of church because your daughter is too loud in the balcony and the organist doesn't want to detract from Easter Mass, kicked out of the front of the auditorium where your daughter is watching her cousins in a talent show because the woman in front complains she's too loud and it's hurting her sons ears, told to quiet her down in a theater before the performance starts and that maybe a theater isn't the right place for her if she can't quiet down...all the little hurts that build into chronic anxiety and stress and a feeling of "she can't do that"..."she's not welcome there"..."what if people complain"...any time any new experience is contemplated.  If she "couldn't" do those things, how could she possibly attend a musical?

Musicals have protocols all their own, when to stand or clap figuring prominently among them, but chiefest of these always is remain quietly seated throughout.  And there's just no way that can happen with Lily.  Unless...unless someone put together a performance where the conventional protocols of musical theater were adapted...suspended...unless someone changed the way a musical's conventional performance was conducted.

And that is precisely what this was.  I don't know exactly how the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust got where they did with the Lion King.  I know that ABOARD worked with them, and I'd be speculating if I threw all the credit at ABOARD without knowing if other charities were involved...or if I threw all the credit at The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for doing it not knowing how long or hard the charity(ies) had to work to make it happen. What I know is what I experienced.  What I know is what I can directly report.  If people want to know more of the details I'll ask around.  Or maybe they'll comment here.  You never know.  This post is just to talk about what The Lion King meant to me and mine and a few thousand of my closest friends...my tribe.  But I know people here and in other cities..."autism people"... were abuzz.

The bill of goods we were sold is that this was to be an "Autism-friendly showing of The Lion King musical".  I know that there was at least one sensory room.  I know that there were quiet rooms for people to retreat to if it got overwhelming.  I know that fidgets were available.  I know that the staff was bolstered by volunteers who were familiar with autism.  I know that when we bought tickets we received a social story discussing what could be expected.

The other things I saw while I was there, but I was mostly ignorant of the details because once I bought the tickets I put it out of my mind until probably a week before the performance and focused on our little family.

We'd gotten tickets right away, so our seats were good.  Extremely good.  Front row, aisle, with the grandparents sitting an aisle back.  We were as close to the stage as you can get without actually being part of the performance, not that Lily didn't try to join in.

We were ready in plenty of time for the drive downtown.  All we had to do was get the kids McDonald's and then we'd be set.  Predictably we fucked this up.  With no money, Leslie arrived at McDonald's and attempted to purchase Happy Meals with her smile.  And just as predictably McDonald's found this currency wanting (despite the smile being priceless).  We had to make another unplanned trip.

Leslie got home and found me less ready than she needed me to be and snapped.  I snapped back and we were off to the races.  Pissed off and stressed out.  It wouldn't be a family outing if it didn't start that way.

Extra trip accomplished, we left fifteen minutes later than we wanted but still arrived with 10 minutes to spare.  I pulled over to the curb in the rain and the girls piled out.  I circled the block to look for parking and found it a half block away from The Benedum (the venue).

I pulled into the parking spot, unlimbered my umbrella and crossed the street to the Benedum before  ducking inside.  Leslie texted me that they were already seated, and I had time to spare.  I found Lu (ABOARD's director) in the lobby.  She told me, unnecessarily, to calm down, and I meandered in to find our seats.  I was the last to arrive, and although I probably sat down just after the 2:00 start time, they allowed people to slowly trickle in for several more minutes before the lights were dimmed (not extinguished) and the show started.

I'm told the music was quieter...for being directly in front of the speakers, I suppose it had to have been.  The music started to play, and Lily looked a bit alarmed.  She reached out to grab hold of our arms.  She didn't want her hands to be held, just wanted to hold someone's hand.  On her terms.  She was agitated.  We made references to the stage..."see the monkey!" ..."her name is Rafiki"...

"No, don't talk!"

I worried she'd start to spiral, but then the music started to sound familiar, and the animals started to walk the aisles...and she was captivated.  Her eyes got big and she started looking all around her at the elephants and giraffes and cheetahs, at the cloth construct birds tethered to poles swirling around our heads, at the colors and the lights and the music.  We kept a steady stream of observations going, attempting to calm her and engage her.  Her movements were quick and stiff like she was scared and anxious, but looking at her face I could see she was just very stimulated by what was going on around her.

The animals gathered and voices joined to voices, agglomerating and building, and they sang the "Circle of Life" and the music and the song built in richness and volume to the crescendo and the Lion King, Mufasa held up his cub for the world's inspection and acceptance and the animals bowed and Lily sang along.  We watched her watching them and my eyes started to brim and I looked to Leslie to see the tears already streaming down her face...watching Lily watch The Lion King.  I gave Emma's hand a squeeze.  She seemed oblivious to the emotion.  I felt the cold constricting band of anger and stress loosen and then fall away from around my chest and I felt like I could breathe again.  I sighed and breathed a deep relaxing breath and then I leaned back into my seat - willing my muscles to slacken, willing my hands to unclench- to enjoy the show.


Throughout the performance the mutters and shrieks and even what sounded like prolonged boos rang out from the crowd.  It felt weird.  It felt funny.  It felt off.  But we all knew.  We all knew it was okay.  And the performers knew it was okay.  And nobody complained or hushed anyone.  Not once.  And believe me it was a full house.  A young man near us, let loose a cacophony of shrieks.  He was upset.  I'm not sure what about.  He stood and stamped and shrieked at his caregivers.  They calmed him and soothed him.  I'm sure they were conscious of others around them.  But nobody cast scornful looks.  Everybody in that venue had a stake in the autism life.  There was no judgement.  As the end of the performance neared he'd had enough.  His group quietly stood and departed and he visibly relaxed in gratitude as they left.  No one told them to wait to stand.  No one cried, "Down in front!"

If the ushers had negative opinions about this disruption to business as usual they didn't show it.  I never saw one look of scorn or judgement.  I saw only smiles.  I experienced only friendly service. 

The performance ended and thousands of grateful patrons stood to appreciate it with cheers and whistles and the performers bowed and smiled in acceptance.  A little girl wearing noise reducing headphones bolted for the stage.  Her mother scooped her up and took her back to their seat.  I smiled.  Ten seconds later she was loose and charging the stage again.  Again her mother corralled her expertly and returned her to her seat.  A third time she bolted.  This time the performers saw her and they began smiling and waving to her, blowing kisses her way as she smiled delightedly back at them, her mother simply holding her in place this time.  I laughed and found again that my eyes were brimming.

Lily stayed in her seat the entire time.  She loved the performance.  At the end of each number she immediately turned to one or both of us and said, "I want the next song."  And each time we replied, "It's coming, Lily."

We left the Benedum with a spring in our strides.  We dodged rain drops and got in our car and drove home and Leslie would sit at the table, or couch, or stand at the counter, or lie in bed for the next...I don't know...four hours maybe?  and repeat, "My heart is full," over and over and over until all she had to do was catch my eye and I'd roll mine and say, "Yeah, I know.  Your heart is full...full of love."

I hope that was everyone's experience.  When we left I tried to think of what could have been done "better".  And the things I thought were all limitations to the venue itself.  The least autistim-friendly parts of the performance were not part of the performance at all.  They were the facilities, or the ingress and egress.  That is where the waiting took place.  That is where the large, loud, stimulating crowds jostled and maneuvered.  And I told Leslie as we left, "I don't know how you could improve upon that unless you convinced the venue to sell half the seats and call 50% attendance a sell-out, then got some major corporate sponsor to underwrite the missing revenue from tickets and concessions so that it still made money."  And that's it.  That's the only issue I had.  It was ironic to me that the intermission, traditionally a time to get up and move around, relax and visit the facilities, was probably the most stressful part of the performance for most people.

We were allowed to get up and move around.  We were allowed to make all the noise we wanted.  We could leave if we needed to without complaint.  We could take her to a quiet room to calm down.  We were allowed to bring in our own food.  The music was softer.  The lights were dimmed but not extinguished.  Extra volunteers were on hand.  Performers and employees were instructed on what to expect.  Women were in the men's room with their kids, men were in the women's room with their kids.  And everyone knew why, and it worked.  It worked so well.

This was big. 

In December they're putting on an "autism-friendly" performance of the Nutcracker.  We used the Lion King to gauge whether we thought Lily would enjoy it...could handle it.  We'll be buying tickets, assuming they're still available.  She can do it.

One last post script.  I know that other organizations were witnessing this.  Seeing how it was done.  Seeing whether it could be done in their venues.  If you're reading this and thinking to yourself..."God, I wish they'd do something like that here," then consider the possibility that they just may.  Contact your local equivalent of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and see.  Contact your local equivalent of ABOARD and see.  Don't assume they're not.


Pittsburgh Cultural Trust on Facebook
Aboard (Autism Connection of PA) on Facebook





34 comments:

  1. Ummm, just to be clear, search your memory. Did Lu tell you to calm down, or did Lu simply gesture toward the bar, using a visual cue to alert you to its location?

    What a wonderful post, it makes my eyes brim too! Thanks for taking the risk and attending the show. Hakuna matada!

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    1. both. You said, "Calm down." And I said, "What?" and you repeated "Calm down" and THEN you gestured to the bar. And that's when I told you it was LESLIE who needed to calm down...etc. etc. And then I went to the bathroom. my memory is pretty clear.

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  2. This is so great. I'm really happy that it worked out so well for you guys—and, it sounds like, for so many people in attendance. I went to one of these at the Kennedy Center in DC and they specifically sold fewer tickets so that there could be space between families and it would be less crowded. I'm thrilled that Lily had such a good time!

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  3. As per the "credit" - many foundations underwrote the ticket prices to bring them way down. The Trust scheduled training sessions for: house staff, administrators, directors, Disney employees, volunteers, and the cast and crew. Total trainees: 206 (estimate). Total people who have not had autism sensitivity training before: about 176. So off the bat, we spread awareness and taught cultural sensitivity related to autism needs to many, ages 8-85 years old. The Trust staff cleared everything with us (ABOARD's Autism Connection of PA) from the pitch of the ticket scanning gun to the fidgets, from sounds, lights, geysers, the online ticket form, and the questions asked of families to fit their special needs. TDF provided the sensory room. About 70 therapists, teachers, PhD's and an MD were our volunteer crew, netted from our list of people who get our newsletter. I can't list all the helpers because there were too many. People in Houston and NYC passed along their tips and experiences and got the social story started, which we adapted a bit. It's a huge team effort. We did "Feel the Love" that afternoon. So glad you blogged about it - hopefully we can advise and encourage others to do the same. - Lu Randall, Autism Connection of PA

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    1. THANK you for this. I'll add it to my write up on Facebook.

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  4. This just made me cry and I'm at work, so thanks for that. What a beautiful post. What's even more beautiful is all the work and people who spent hours making this event come together. That just makes my heart full....full of love!

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  5. you put into words what i couldn't quite manage. it was a great performance and wonderful to see it so well attended. i hope you all enjoy the Nutcracker!

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    1. very excited. A&E showed a live performance and we happened to DVR it. We've been showing it to Lily for the past month or so. She'll know all the songs!

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  6. I was there with my son (w/Down syndrome & PDD) and his two younger sisters. It was an ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS experience! My son was comfortable...we felt welcome and accepted. All of the volunteers and those in attendance were so respectful of the special patrons. Without a doubt, it was a stress free family outing. Bravo!!

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    1. Stress free might still be pushing it, but stress reduced? For sure!

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  7. This is FANTASTIC, Jim. This made me so happy as a friend of yours, and also as a theater person. YES. More live theaters need to be doing this. What a wonderful way to make theater accessible to EVERYONE. This just made me glow. (And I'm so glad Lily loved "The Lion King!" I was pretty blown away when I saw it a couple years ago, too. The production values on that show are AMAZING!)

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    1. I saw it in Toronto 13 years ago. I didn't love it. The costumes yeah...and the production...yeah, but it seemed like it dragged.

      I loved it this past weekend. And I don't know what changed except maybe my perspective and my focus.

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  8. Hi Jim (if I may be so bold as to call you by your first name)-

    It's funny what a small world it is sometimes. A friend sent me a link to this post today. She has just found your blog recently. We were discussing how wonderful the performance was, and I was telling her how my daughter had never been to anything like that in her life. She is pretty much obsessed with animals. Knows just about every one in the world, I think. When all of the animals came out during "Circle of Life", the sheer joy and wonder in her face was enough to have me and my mother-in-law in tears. She kept asking for the sunrise again throughout the show.

    I was telling my friend that it was so typical (for my girl) that she would rush the stage at the end of the show. It was my little Lela that tried to run up there, and I was the one "expertly" corralling her (thanks, BTW). I could definitely understand why she wanted to be a part of it. I'm sure we all can. But the best thing was that no one came angrily running toward us to block her. In fact, they smiled, and after her third attempt, the volunteer said, "She's fine." That's when we stayed and looked up to the see the performers looking at her, smiling, and waving. My heart absolutely melted at that point. I wish I could have professed my gratitude to each and every one of them. I did write a letter to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

    Twist of Fate #2: After seeing this, I read through your blog a bit and thought, "Oh, we just met a little girl named Lily at Lela's dance class a few weeks ago." And lo and behold, I see that your Lily is one and the same. That's quite the cowinkydink. Nice to meet ya. =) Sarah

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    1. That is so amazingly awesome. And of course you can call me Jim. So obviously...there were thousands of people there so the odds that you'd find this post are incredible. Your daughter is so goddamn CUTE!!! I was laughing my ass off as she was making a b-line for the stage. And then I got all misty and choked up while the cast was waving and blowing her kisses. I was just like "this is SO. COOL!!"

      Also...I was pretty kind with my description...you could use a LITTLE work on your technique. Lift with your legs, Sarah. Lift with your legs.

      Finally...NO WAY. She's in that dance class with Lily? Lily skipped this week so we could get everything ready. I missed the first week because traffic on 28 made my 15 minute drive into an hour and 15 minutes and my parents stayed with her until we went to E-town to eat afterwards.

      SUCH a small world!

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  9. Well, she WAS is the dance class. She has not been motivated to go since the first day, so we dropped it. It's not something I want to force her to do.

    And as for the lifting, note taken. But I WAS a little busy and distracted!

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  10. And I was trying to keep my head down! ;-)

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    1. also maybe one of those lifting belts...

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  11. This is WONDERFUL. My heart grew ten sizes.

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  12. Absolutely fabulous! So happy that your family got to enjoy this together!

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  13. I realized I was holding my breath as I read this, realized how much i relate without having put it in words...THanks so much and, hey, very happy for you!!!

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  14. I'm so glad you, your family and everyone else was able to attend, to be able to enjoy a show with no condemnation or judgement and were able to find such joy in it. My co-workers and friends all told me if I felt that proud to be part of it, just wait till the thank you's start coming in. They were right. As I sat at the airport heading to yet another city, I had to dab away tears of happiness as I read your blog. I can also tell you that your blog has become viral and has been shared among Lion King's cast, crew, management, artistics and others and was even printed and posted backstage on the call board tonight in Dallas. Thank you for letting us be a part of such an amazing experience.
    Kevin-Lion King Backstage Road Crew

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    1. It was wonderful, and I'm glad that you got a chance to hear first hand how it touched our lives. And I mean "our" on behalf of all the families not just mine. There was a LOT of positive feedback. Thank you again for helping make it happen.

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  15. I hope you don't mind that I'm putting a link to this entry on my Facebook fan page. It's a great account of the experience of the show. Thank you for writing this. It's a great piece.
    Patrick R Brown (Scar)

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    1. I meant to reply to this a while back. We loved the performance (and yours specifically). Any blog viewable by the public is a cry for exposure, so I don't mind you linking in the slightest.

      I remember thinking during the performance that it must have been strange for you in particular because so much of Scar's part is spoken without all the background music. So I really noticed the crowd noise during your parts. Was it noticeable on stage? Had you been told to expect it? Did you ever get distracted by it? If you did, it didn't show. Great performance, and thank you and the rest of the ...troupe? (I don't know nuthin' 'bout theater-folk) for putting it on.

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  16. I read this blog post & the one posted by Selena with a perspective from the performers & cried both times. Then I read through the comments and wished their was a like button I could click. What an amazing experience for everyone and the supportive comments! Gah! I'm going to cry again. I am now searching to see if anything like this is planned for my City. Anybody know? MPLS/ST PAUL area have any Autism friendly performances? I read your blog & love how you can throw humor into such a stressful life. Thank You :)

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    1. Where is the other post from Selena? How can I find it? I would love to read it!

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    2. Never mind - I found it. Thanks for mentioning it though!

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  17. sounds like you had just a wonderful time, I loved the Lion King when I saw it i just fell in love to

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