Arts orgs adapt for visitors with special needs

Pittsburgh Ballet is a pioneer in opening the performing arts to people with sensory sensitivities, including bringing in special education teachers as volunteer ushers and encouraging audience members to do whatever helps them engage.

Kelly Perkovich/Courtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performed a sensory-friendly performance of 'Peter Pan' in February 2016.

Children with autism clapped exuberantly as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers kicked and leapt to Tchaikovsky.

Pittsburgh Ballet is a pioneer in opening the performing arts to people with sensory sensitivities. Strategies include bringing in special education teachers as volunteer ushers and encouraging audience members to do whatever helps them engage. Christina Salgado, who oversees Pittsburgh accessibility initiatives, said the result can be a bonus for performers. “You could see the joy in the dancers’ faces” as the audience kept the beat during the Russian dance in “The Nutcracker” last season, Ms. Salgado said.

Lisa Goring, chief program and marketing officer of the research and advocacy group Autism Speaks, pointed to stagings of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in New York and London, which had toned-down sound and light effects, as more evidence of theaters adapting. Ms. Goring has advised the audience diversity nonprofit Theatre Development Fund and since 2011, the fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative has presented Broadway performances including “Wicked” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Julie Marshall, who studied music at the University of Colorado, had looked forward to sharing live performances with her daughter, who was diagnosed with autism. But at one concert, an usher asked her family to move after another music lover complained about Sarah’s “conducting.” “Our kids are told what to do and how to behave so much in their lives,” Ms. Marshall said. “They rarely get to enjoy music and express who they are on their own terms.” 

Marshall started the nonprofit organization BrainSong in 2011 to organize visits by professional musicians to special education classes. BrainSong also produces concerts. Last year, BrainSong raised funds to subsidize tickets for the Boulder Ballet and the Boulder Philharmonic’s first performance of an autism-friendly “Nutcracker.”

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