Recently at On The Stage, we recognized World Autism Awareness Day on April 2nd. The world of theatre thrives on creativity and inclusivity, and this includes individuals on the autism spectrum. At On The Stage, we believe in making theatre accessible to all, and embracing neurodivergent perspectives is crucial to enhancing the world of neurodiverse theatre.

In this blog, we will delve into the importance of empowering neurodiversity in theatre and share insights on how to support neurodivergent individuals, including those with autism, so they can thrive in the creative arts. We’ll also explore ways to make performances more welcoming for the neurodivergent community. So, let’s jump right in!

Why Theatre is Important for Neurodivergent Individuals

The benefits of theatre for neurodivergent individuals are numerous and significant, and in turn, their contributions to the world of theatre are equally valuable. Let’s talk about a few reasons why theatre is a great activity:

Theatre Can Help Children on the Spectrum Socially and Emotionally

A new study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders has found that theatre can help to build social skills. As an organized activity that brings together a large group of creative minds, everyone involved has the opportunity to learn about collaboration, delegation, and communicating with a variety of personalities. 

From an emotional point of view, theatre evokes a wide range of feelings, helping everyone involved develop further compassion, empathy, and sympathy. Not to mention, theatre can be a great way to practice how we communicate with one another, both verbally and non-verbally.

Theatre Provides Release

Whether it’s through an emotional monologue, a silly improv game, freeing body movements, or quiet time, theatre is a release from the dredges of everyday life. Neurodivergent individuals  – and really, all people in general – need a safe space to express themselves freely, and theatre can do exactly that.

Theatre Can Help Children on the Spectrum in School 

Having outside motivators to stay organized and prepared can help neurodivergent folks on their way to success. For example, theatre can be viewed as an incentive: if students accomplish their commitments at home and school, they’ll be able to attend rehearsals. Rules and structure are keys to success – both for neurotypical and neurodivergent students.

Additionally, theatre builds creativity, and creativity nurtures well-rounded students. By engaging students in theatre, they can expand their creativity and their knowledge!

Representation and Inclusion Always Matter

In recent years, the theatre community has made significant progress towards becoming a more inclusive environment, welcoming individuals of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations, and other marginalized identities. The same energy should be brought to the inclusion of neurodivergent people in theatre. By actively including and accommodating neurodivergent individuals in theater, the community can create a more welcoming and diverse environment, ultimately enriching the experience for everyone involved. 

Ways to Empower Autistic Individuals 

Never Consider Their Differences as Setbacks

People on the autism spectrum, and neurodivergent people in general, may come at situations differently, and process information in varying ways. As artists, we strive for innovative and unconventional thinking, and embracing the differences that neurodivergent individuals bring can help us grow as creatives. Rather than viewing neurodivergence as a challenge, we should embrace it in the artistic process and empower new perspectives.

Work With/Hire Neurodivergent Folks

When working with a cast that includes neurodivergent individuals, it can be highly beneficial to seek out the expertise of leaders who are also on the spectrum. Especially if you are not neurodivergent yourself, collaborating with a neurodivergent leader can provide important insight and guidance on how to best accommodate the needs of the cast. For example, a neurodivergent leader can offer advice on how to create sensory-friendly performances or provide support for neurodivergent cast members in situations where you may not have the same level of understanding. By working together and leveraging the expertise of all involved, you can create a more inclusive and supportive environment that benefits everyone. 

Consider Sensory Limitations When Making Creative Decisions

Setting up neurodivergent cast members for success means understanding their sensory triggers. When choosing games to play and improv activities to participate in, remember that neurodivergent students may get overwhelmed or triggered by certain visual, auditory, or tactile sensations. 

Additionally, consider these triggers when choosing a piece of theatre. Is it able to be transformed into a sensory-friendly piece? Are there a variety of visual and auditory triggers? 

Choose Plays and Musicals with Neurodivergent Characters

We mentioned representation matters, and it does. Seek out musicals, plays, and other forms of media that are neurodivergent-coded, i.e. have characters with neurodivergent qualities. Some examples of musicals and plays that are neurodivergent-coded include “Dear Evan Hansen,” which features a main character with social anxiety and depression, and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which centers around a young man on the autism spectrum.

Ways to Make Performances Neurodivergent Friendly

Your patrons with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder have unique and varying sensory needs. To continue working towards accessibility, you can offer certain showcases as ‘sensory-friendly,’ which will make your theatre a more welcoming place for neurodivergent individuals. A few ideas include: 

Focus on Dimming Sensory Experiences

Perhaps the easiest way to make neurodivergent audience members feel included is by creating sensory-friendly performances. A few ways to do this include:

  • Keeping lights at a bright and consistent level
  • Dimming loud noises or sound effects
  • Eliminating bright flashes of light, flashy sets, strobing, or other visual triggers 
  • Limited or eliminating actor-audience interaction 

Offer Preparatory Story Guides 

A sensory guide is a document that provides information about the sensory experiences that one might encounter during production. It can be especially helpful for individuals who are sensitive to certain sensory stimuli or have sensory processing difficulties, such as those with autism, anxiety, or sensory processing disorder.

A social narrative is a written or visual guide that explains the social expectations and interactions that will occur during the production. It can be useful for individuals with social communication difficulties or those who benefit from having clear expectations laid out in advance.

When creating a sensory guide and social narrative specific to a production, some things that might be included are:

  1. Information about the venue, such as the layout, lighting, and sound setup.
  2. Details about the performance, such as the plot, themes, and tone.
  3. A breakdown of the sensory experiences that audience members may encounter, such as sudden loud noises, flashing lights, or strong smells.
  4. Tips for managing sensory overload, such as bringing noise-canceling headphones or taking breaks.
  5. A description of the social interactions that may occur, such as when to applaud or how to interact with performers.
  6. Information about available accessibility accommodations, such as wheelchair seating or ASL interpretation.

The sensory guide and social narrative should be made available in advance of the show, either online or via email so that individuals can adequately prepare for the experience. This will help to reduce anxiety and increase enjoyment for all audience members.

Allow Freedom of Movement

To help neurodivergent individuals enjoy a performance without feeling confined, offering the option for freedom of movement can be valuable. One way to do this is by implementing a less structured seating arrangement for specific shows, ensuring that everyone can enjoy the performance on their own terms. For instance, an open seating arrangement that allows audience members to stand or move around during the performance can be particularly meaningful for autistic individuals. It can also be reassuring to let them know that if they need to leave the space at any point, they are welcome to return when they feel ready.

Provide a ‘Break’ Space

Provide a Take-a-Break Space during your shows, equipping it with a variety of fidgets, weighted blankets, and other sensory supports. Another option is a Quiet Room, which is a place that allows the performance to be viewed with some separation from the audience. This can be done using televisions, streaming options, on-demand viewing, and more.

Working Towards a More Inclusive Space

In honor of Autism Awareness Day, spend some time learning about the many ways you can become inclusive of neurodivergent people in your everyday life. A few sources to research (or donate to) include:

  • Autism Speaks: Providing information on topics such as diagnosis, treatment, and advocacy, this organization offers a comprehensive resource guide for individuals, friends, and families impacted by autism.
  • Seesaw Theatre: This is a non-profit organization that provides inclusive theatre opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The organization creates original productions that feature actors with disabilities, and all of their shows are fully accessible and inclusive.  
  • The Miracle Project: This performing arts program is for individuals with autism and other special needs, focusing on a wide array of developmental skills.
  • Sense Theatre: With drama workshops for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and related conditions, Sense Theatre’s mission is aimed at improving communication, socialization, and confidence.
  • Spectrum Theatre Ensemble: By creating and producing original theatre productions that feature individuals with autism and other disabilities, this group makes enormous strides in sharing neurodiverse stories within the theatre community.
  • Theatre Development Fund: TDF brings autism-friendly performances of Broadway shows, offering individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities a sensory-friendly theatre experience that they can comfortably engage in.
  • Stages Theatre Company: CAST (Creative Accepting Sensory-friendly Theatre) is a program offered by Stages Theatre Company that provides sensory-friendly productions for individuals with autism and other sensory processing disorders. The program features adjusted lighting and sound, relaxed noise and movement, and pre-show materials to help patrons feel comfortable.

Including autistic individuals in theatre and embracing neurodiverse perspectives can promote greater understanding and empathy in our society. In creating more inclusive and accessible environments, we can give autistic individuals a platform to share their unique talents and perspectives. By promoting neurodiversity and recognizing the value of different ways of thinking and experiencing the world, we can create a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

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