A few months ago, I was on an international flight and happened upon the documentary, Life Animated, the true story of an autistic boy who learned to talk watching Disney films. Tears swelled up in my eyes, thinking of the power of the arts and my own son who has ADHD and sensory issues.
I had been trying to use this power in our own lives for years without much success until one day, when everything changed with a single show.
I first took my cue at Stomp, which I took him to see in 2010, when he was 6 years old. He managed for the most part, but by the end of the show, his senses were shot and he was screaming at me to leave. I also took him to see How to Succeed on Broadway Without Really Trying in 2011 and Matilda in 2013, two experiences I decided not to replicate anytime soon.
It’s hard to explain what happens in these moments, but the theater’s darkness and the noise make him anxious and out-of-sync, causing him to require a certain amount of sensory input. He would bury his body into mine during the play, sleep and constantly ask me when it would be over. He was unable to hold his attention and it was clearly a problem that was going to ensue. Naturally, it was difficult for me to enjoy these plays, as good as they were.
That I could not take him to shows was a hard possibility for me to accept. A die-hard, passionate supporter of the arts, I have been going to several shows per week ever since I moved to NYC. Theater is in my blood. I went to a performing arts high school and studied and performed in Shakespeare, Chekov and Ibsen plays growing up. I performed in Fiddler on the Roof, Charlie Brown, basically any play I could get cast in.
My love of theater is something I have tried to pass down to my children. Neither of them are performers (I would have made a terrific Momager!), but from the minute they came out of my womb, I longed to take them to their first Broadway show. At age 4, my daughter put on her twinkly, shiny shoes and off we went to see Mary Poppins on Broadway. She has been a super steady theater companion to this day.
Two years ago, when he was 11, my son asked me to take him to see School of Rock on Broadway. I was surprised and apprehensive, understandably. But he loved the movie the show is based on and had watched it several times on Netflix. Somehow during that summer two few years ago, he took note of its pending Broadway arrival, and he became determined to see it once it hit NYC. Still, I questioned his focus and ability to sit still yet I went with an open mind and a heck of a lot of hope.
During intermission, he told me that the reason the show was working for him was not only that he knew the story inside out, but he really liked the music. I must also tell you that I caught glimpses of him clapping during the songs, composed by Webber himself. He never once closed his eyes to go to sleep. If you only knew the happiness I felt in these moments.
There were other reasons the show worked for us. There were no banging sounds, like in Stomp, or nothing to overwhelm him. His familiarity with the movie gave him a sense of what to expect. The music wasn’t at an unreasonable sound level. There were no strobe lights or flashing lights to distract him or make him anxious, and he managed to stay alert and interested during the length of the show. He managed to keep it together.
On the way home, he downloaded the music on iTunes and I proudly listened to him sing songs from the show. After that, the music became a part of our daily driving routine and I could hear him singing songs from the show during random moments at home. It seemed we had turned a corner and our conversations turned to talk about the kids in the show. I told him about my passion for Andrew Lloyd Webber and how I had been introduced to Cats as a young girl, just a few years older than him at the time.
That’s why I’m grateful when I hear about initiatives like TDF’s Autism Initiative, designed to bring theater into the worlds of children and adults on the autism spectrum or other similar diagnoses. So far, they have introduced kids to The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Spider-Man, Wicked, Matilda, Phantom of the Opera, Aladdin, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. I’m hoping to find other productions to take my son to because one thing: the power of the arts.
Let’s change the conversation when it comes to special needs kids and theater. It’s time.