DALLAS -- Bright lights, loud voices, and dramatic gestures are the things that make live theater exciting for most kids.
But those same things can be downright overwhelming for children living with autism.
Typically, a dazzling children's theater performance appeals to all the senses, with bold colored sets and the music that complements the action. But what's captivating to some kids is distracting for a child with an autism spectrum disorder.
Dallas Children’s Theater Education Director Nancy Shaeffer used the example of the scratchy tag in a shirt that become a constant source of annoyance.
“Sometimes for these children, it’s like that irritating tag in the back of the shirt,” she said. “It becomes the most important thing in the room and the most upsetting thing.”
Saturday, for the first time ever, the Dallas Children's Theater will put on a sensory-friendly play. With the help of autism experts, the show “Go Dog Go!” was adapted to make it more enjoyable for kids with autism.
“The parents that have been calling in -- when they book their tickets, some of them are almost crying on the phone because they are so happy that we’re doing this," Shaeffer said.
It's just a tweak here and there. They lowered the sound volume, cut out some effects that included blinking, flashing, or very bright lights. Dim house lights will be on the entire show. Most importantly, there will be a quiet room available.
University of North Texas researcher Haylie Miller was a consultant.
“One of the things that I hear parents talk about a lot when they take their kids out in public is the fear of their child having a meltdown in a public place and not knowing if they have a safe place to go to,” Miller said.
The University of North Texas’ Kristin Farmer Autism Center, 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 were all contributors to the effort. The performance was also made possible with a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Theatre Communications Group.
The changes are subtle to make sure that parents, siblings, and friends can also enjoy the show. Miller said it's important not to isolate children with autism and instead, make it easier for them to enjoy things that other children are drawn to.
“We don’t want to change the experience so much that the kids are not getting the typical show or getting the full programming,” Miller said.
The Dallas Children’s Theater also consulted with other theater groups around the country who are experimenting with sensory-friendly performances.
Jeffery Revels is the artistic director of the Orlando Repertory Theater. It has done four sensory friendly plays.
“We discovered we were missing a whole huge number of children that were underserved by opportunities to go out and experience the arts,” Revels said.
The first performance did not attract a full audience, but the next three were sold out.
“Word of mouth was huge,” he said. “But also it’s an activity, a place, an event that you can go with your child who is on the spectrum and be around others with similar issues and be in a safe environment.”
Karl Shaeffer is one of the actors in “Go Dog Go!" He said the entire cast is looking forward to Saturday.
“I’m very excited to see what the reaction will be,” he said. “And I’m hoping that it’s a program that we can continue and bring more and more audiences in to see the shows here at the Dallas Children’s Theater.”
The performance starts Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Rosewood Center. For information about tickets go to this link.