To some, the recent Broadway presentation of “Mary Poppins” might have seemed a little odd – not the show itself, but its audience; yips, shouts, moans, fidgets and flaps filled the room. To those inside the theater, however, it was just another day with autism… oh, and a lovely Broadway experience.
In the second Broadway production of its kind, the Broadway presentation of “Mary Poppins” was designed especially for children with autism. Bright lights, loud noises and sudden changes can often create anxiety or meltdowns among autistic children. Because of this, the show was altered slightly to reduce the noise and light stimulation – the tap sounds to the song “Step in Tap” were decreased and all strobe lights were removed from the show, for example.
Other steps taken to help reduce autism triggers included providing families with character guides and song lists ahead of time to help familiarize the children with the show ahead of time. Coloring books, puzzles and games were offered to fidgety children and children who just needed to roam. For overstimulated children, a calming area with bean bags and activities was provided. Signalers at either side of the stage indicated when a sudden change in the show would occur or when they needed to clap. And approximately 40 autism specialists roamed through the theater, offering aid to parents and families of the happy little patrons.
Some of these techniques were used during the Theatre Development Fund’s first Broadway presentation, “The Lion King.” Others, however, were added based on the experience and knowledge gained since then. But none of the changes take away from the overall story.
“The power of the story remains, said David Caddick, the music supervisor. “We changed some elements to avoid sensory overload but it doesn’t, in any way, diminish it for the other family members.”
“We’re learning each time,” stated Victoria Bailey, TDF’s executive director. “It’s really clear that the demand is there.”
Parents are confirming that need through their comments and positive feedback. Many of them were just happy to have the experience for their families and their children. Often being faced with judgment from others or having to avoid certain situations because of their child’s disability, it must have been wonderful to be in a room where you didn’t have to worry about offending anyone. While each child behaved a little differently, they all behaved in a way that was considered “normal” amongst each other.
“You don’t have to worry. You’re in the same position as everybody else is,” said Lisa Brodwin, mother to ten-year-old Morgan, an outgoing autistic child. “You don’t have to be embarrassed. It’s OK that your child is screaming, crying or carrying on. She loves music, she loves dancing and I wanted to take her and my other son, who’s not autistic, as a family. So the four of us can do something together. I think this is so monumental. I think this is so beneficial.”
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