Occupational therapist counsels Center for the Performing Arts on autism-friendly events such as ‘Night Train 57’
What are some of the challenges and needs that neuro-diverse families face when they want to partake in a cultural experience outside the home? Roger Ideishi, director and professor of occupational therapy at Temple University, shared insight into best practices and venue-patron expectations at a Jan. 29 visit to the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.
The center hosted a morning staff meeting and community brown bag luncheon to prepare for the production of “Night Train 57,” a sensory-friendly comic folk opera featuring Dan Zanes, Claudia Eliaza and Yuriana Sobrino. The April 14–15 public and School-Time Matinee events feature the Grammy Award-winning Zanes leading his musical friends through a welcoming and relaxed program specifically geared toward individuals with autism spectrum disorders and their families. The event is part of the center’s Diversity and Inclusion Collaborative.
Ideishi said cultural art spaces are among the most difficult to introduce to an individual with sensory-perception disorders because of the “unwritten, unspoken rules”—sit down, be quiet, don’t move.
“Theater etiquette is pretty constraining for most people,” he said. “But when we talk about communities who have disabilities, knowing the social etiquette completely rules out any opportunity for coming to the theater.”
And for an event billed as “sensory-friendly,” Ideishi said, a parent’s most common reaction is to question the ability of a venue to be prepared.
“This is an audience that, for various reasons, they’re distrustful of people who’ve never interacted before, or an industry that hasn’t really invited them before,” he said.
He added that one of the most prominent fears among parents of children with autism is the expectation of public shaming resulting from a child’s nonconforming behavior.
“The other thing I hear from families is this idea of alertness,” he said. “Parents are reporting this high level of alert whenever they go out of the house—for themselves because they’re worried about what strangers say to them, but also just the general management (regarding) the different needs that their child may have.”
In order for families with autism spectrum disorders to be as prepared as possible for an event, he said, it’s crucial for a venue to communicate to its patrons what they can expect. The theater should relay the entire experience, including the description of the walk from the parking garage to the seats, if there will be snacks at the theater, any intermission information and rules for the performance, where the bathrooms and exits are, and leaving the parking garage after the performance.
John Dibert, program director for the Soaring Heights schools in State College and Altoona, stressed the importance for a venue to create opportunities for the caregiver to prepare his or her child for an event.
“You just don’t realize the structure and the schedule and the sensory issues that they perceive,” he said. “So the whole concept of ‘art’—you wanna come here and be quiet and be surprised and be amazed—they don’t want that. They want stability, structure, ‘I know what’s gonna happen.’”
To illustrate the range of issues venues and families face, Tyrone mother Kim Capenos addressed a number of variations a theater could adopt to cater to patrons, such as her three spectrum-oriented daughters. While an event modification, such as staggered entry time, might work for some families, she said, a last-minute arrival time for her family is often ideal because “waiting time means trouble time.” And for an event featuring music and dance, for example, she suggested converting back rows into dance and movement sections.
While the discussion focused on how to welcome patrons with sensory disorders, Ideishi said venues found that those preparations also made for better arts experiences for young children and older people with dementia.
Philipsburg’s Rowland Theater periodically presents film screenings for families with kids with sensory-processing disorders. Board member Rebecca Inlow said Ideishi’s talk provided some new insights to how her venue might organize future screenings, especially because the events often draw adult patrons.
She added that learning more about how individuals can fall in between two extremes on the autism spectrum creates a workable challenge in organizing a successful event for everyone.
“Those attending don't fall into one single category,” she said. “(Ideishi) talked about the needs of those who are hypersensitive in the varying senses and those who are hyposensitive. I will be more aware of this when we hold our sensory-friendly movie showings.”
Medora Ebersole, education and community programs manager at the center, organized Ideishi’s visit. She invited more than 300 teachers, autism advocates and representatives from arts nonprofits and social service agencies from throughout central Pennsylvania to learn about and share insight on the challenges the neuro-diverse community faces and opportunities it lacks.
“We are learning that teachers of the special classroom students also feel marginalized and overburdened, so we are excited about bringing a sensory-friendly performance to the schools and the public,” Ebersole said.
Ideishi’s career has led him to help create arts and cultural experiences suitable for families with neuro-diverse abilities. He consulted with Zanes on “Night Train 57,” and he has worked with a variety of cultural centers, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadelphia Museum of Art. His aim is to provide access and opportunity to children with a spectrum of cognitive abilities and sensory challenges.