by Kat Redniss, Student Matinee Coordinator
As part of the Flynn’s continuing efforts to break down barriers of participation for individuals with disabilities, the Flynn and Chicago Children’s Theatre welcomes young people on the autism spectrum into a world of wonderand innovation with Red Kite, Brown Box (October 4 & 5). Inspired by the book Not a Box by Antoinette Portis,
Red Kite, Brown Box is a unique multi-sensory theatrical experience that brings participants into the world of Papa Nick and his kids as they explore the space filled with cardboard boxes and simple props.
Red Kite, Brown Box gives audience members a series of events with alternating intensity—soothing and calm following raucous and high energy, from creating the night sky to replicating popcorn popping. Everyone is welcomed gently into the performance, and encouraged to interact and respond organically. Kids can sing, laugh, talk, clap, dance, and help create this magical world; no one is expected to remain silent or in their seats. Each participant has their own cardboard box as a home base, made cozy and safe with personal items provided by the individual’s family. Each performance welcomes a maximum of fifteen young people and their parents, teachers, or caregivers into our Hoehl Studio; the small number of participants further contributes to the intimate and supported feel. These promise to be days filled with joy, laughter, and creative innovation, enveloping young people on the spectrum with support, and hopefully reinforcing the sentiment that the Flynn is a place for all people.
As we enter the second year of our Surdna Foundation-funded disability and inclusion initiatives, it’s a thrilling time to look back and reflect on what we’ve done to increase access for our community, and to anticipate the impact that lies ahead as we continue working to further lessen barriers and increase awareness.
So, what adaptations make a show “autism-friendly?” Schoolhouse Rock Live! was our first show of this sort, which we presented in February 2015. Here are some of the ways we made the Flynn inviting and safe for those on the autism spectrum:
• A Flynn Social Story: A visual story that walks a person through what they might expect during their visit to the Flynn, helping to reduce anxiety of the unknown.
• Character Guides: A visual guide to the four main players in the show with discussion prompts and activities for families to explore together after the show.
• Training for our Volunteer Spirits: Pascal Cheng, longtime Flynn volunteer and education and communications specialist at the Howard Center, presented training on best practices with the input of a young woman on the autism spectrum, who shared her experience as an audience member with autism. One parent reflected in a post-performance survey, “The ushers were very accommodating of my ASD kiddo—they were fine with letting us hang on in the back behind the seating with them, and were great about suggesting how best to help our kiddo get comfortable!”
• Technical Adjustments: The house lights remained on at a low level; sound levels were reduced through consultation from a Howard Center Autism Interventionist and our production staff.
• Coloring Station: Themed coloring pages and markers, attended by special educators and Flynn staff and volunteers, who interacted and colored with families.
• Fidgets, Comfort Items, and Sensory Materials:
Koosh balls, tangles, small beanbags, weighted blankets and wraps, noise-reducing headphones, stress balls, and sunglasses available to any audience member.
• Quiet Space: Our gallery was furnished with beanbag chairs and yoga balls, tucked away from the commotion of a packed lobby.
Often, the biggest barrier to entry is feeling unwelcome and ashamed of behaviors that are atypical in an audience setting. Providing an inclusive autism-friendly show like Schoolhouse Rock Live! helped break through some of that anxiety, as one parent noted, “If there were more supports and accommodations like these in other public venues, my child and family would be much more integrated into our community. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for an afternoon where my child was safe and supported, where his needs were not seen as exceptional or inconvenient.” Gigi Weisman, Autism Program Consultant for Chittenden East SU said, “Even those who had gone to shows before reported they were so much more relaxed knowing their family member or friend would be accepted rather than judged.”
We’ve been able to offer many of these accommodations for every family matinee, and for students in our school matinee series. These small considerations, increased staff awareness, and continued dedication to learning and growing have strengthened our inclusive practices, and demonstrate the need and importance of this work in our community.
And this is work we plan to continue! In addition to Red Kite, Brown Box, the Flynn is offering two other shows that promote inclusion from different angles. On March 8, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, the zany tale of a cat transforming a dull rainy day into a zany adventure, is presented as another autism-friendly performance, giving us opportunity to revisit our practices and takes steps towards an even deeper level of inclusion. As part of our student matinee series, we’ll present Celestial Being on January 12. The story of Celeste, a young girl with Asperger’s who loves outer space but has trouble connecting with those from her own planet, provides a powerful opportunity for students to develop empathy and understanding regarding the experiences of the character on stage and those of their classmates and friends.
It is with great pride and excitement I look ahead to next season. As Temple Grandin stated, “the most important thing people did for me was to expose me to new things.” So here’s to breaking down barriers of shame, and replacing them with inclusive, welcoming opportunities to expose members of our community on the autism spectrum to new, exciting, engaging things!