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UNT Autism Center helps with sensory-friendly theater shows this weekend

UNT Autism Center helps with sensory-friendly theater shows this weekend

UNT Autism Center helps with sensory-friendly theater shows this weekend
February 26
13:27 2014

Morgan Gentry // Intern Writer

Theater is known for bright lights, big voices and theatrical performances, but for children with autism, all of those elements can lead to sensory overload.

The Dallas Children’s Theater (DCT) is making it possible for children with autism, sensory challenges or developmental disabilities to enjoy the fine arts by providing its first-ever sensory-friendly program, beginning March 1 at the DCT’s Rosewood Center.

“We had some request from parents with children who have special sensory needs, who maybe the lights were too bright or too dark, or the sounds were too loud and they had a hard time staying in the theater,” education director at Dallas Children’s Theater Nancy Schaeffer said. “We wanted to find a way to work some of these programs in.”

With the help of UNT’s Kristin Farmer Autism Center and other partners in the local autism community, DCT will provide three productions throughout the year: “Go Dog Go!,” “Stuart Little,” and a third that has yet to be announced.

Tickets are $5 dollars for the announced shows, and the first show, ”Go Dog Go!”, will start at 1:30 p.m. this Saturday.

The program was made possible by a grant through the Audience (R)Evolution Program, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Theatre Communications Group. DCT also worked with the National Children’s Theater in Orlando, Fla., to help them with adaptions and get the ball rolling.

Schaeffer stressed that having this opportunity can create more sensory-friendly shows down the line. She said she wants to get the word out and let people know they can have a good experience while keeping their child safe.

Crafted by an advisory council whose focus has been on autistic needs, the program’s accommodations and adaptions include leaving the house lights up higher than a standard performance and reducing the sound level. There will also be pre-show activities an hour before the shows and a “quiet room” for children to step away and relax, along with interaction between the actors.

The local advisory council, chosen by DCT, consists of members from UNT’s Kristin Farmer Autism Center and the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, Autism Speaks, the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at UT Southwestern, Children’s Medical Center and the Dallas Museum of Art.

“It’s important to provide access to individuals with autism to the arts, theater and music,” said Kevin Stewart, UNT’s Kristin Farmer Autism Center’s director of outreach and training. “It’s something that parents may not take advantage of if they have a child with autism, because of the sensory issues.”

As soon as the staff at the Kristin Farmer Center heard about the new program, it jumped helped in any and every way it could.

Social stories, a pictorial guide with simple language explaining what can be expected when visiting the theater, were crafted and provided for the audience members beforehand.

Lauren Matthews provided expertise on what should or should not be on the social story. Matthews, a UNT speech-language pathologist at the Autism Center and faculty member of the speech and hearing sciences department, said the program is fantastic.

“The children are going to love it,” Matthews said. “The adaptations and modifications that we give for this show are for the kids, but it’s just as much for the parents to know that they’re going to be in an environment where other parents know where they’re coming from and having that same background.”

The program provides a place with no judgment, support for families and a chance for kids to enjoy the arts, Matthews said.

Some UNT students will be volunteering throughout the program’s run as well.

“I’m really excited about it. When I heard about it I thought it was the best thing,” speech and language pathology sophomore Hannah Shirey said. “I did theater in high school and theater is so important. It’s awesome that they’re accommodating it for kids with sensory issues.”

Feature photo: The first sensory friendly show for children with autism “Go, Dog. Go!” will take place on Mar. 1 at the Dallas Children’s Theater. The theater plans to offer three sensory friendly productions. Photo courtesy of the Dallas Children’s Theater.  

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