Yesterday was the most magical day. Yesterday, dear friends, Nate attended a Broadway show!!!
You probably know Theatre Development Fund for its TKTS booth in Times Square but they have a lot of other awesome theatre programs — including the Autism Theatre Initiative, which makes Broadway theatre accessible to individuals on the autism spectrum and their families. The accessibility is broad. TDF buys the entire house of one performance of a Broadway show and works with foundations, corporations, and individual donors to lower the the ticket price for attending families. This made the top ticket price $80, which may read as expensive, but the top ticket price is typically $227! And that price break makes a big difference for those of us who are spending the difference on therapy and insurance co-payments.
The performance was staffed by an army of awesome volunteers, all decked out in bright yellow Lion King shirts, who were knowledgeable about our families’ needs and were ready to help in every way. As we entered the theatre, we were greeted by these volunteers, who gave every person on the spectrum a free toy to play with (which we also call a fidget…something to play with that helps Nate stay focused). Nate got a bright yellow koosh ball! (And he scored a few more fidgets along the way when he got a little loud during the performance….)
When we got to the top of the first escalator, we met Auntie Anne’s co-workers. The professional photographers knew who we were (Auntie Anne had been talking Nate up a bit…!) so we got a few family portraits taken (with Auntie Anne, of course!). Nate ran over to the floor-to-ceiling windows and starred at the cars and people and lights of Times Square. It was magic.
On every floor of the Minskoff Theatre, TDF set up play areas for people on the spectrum to enjoy. It included a squishy floor mat, lots of sensory toys, bean bags, coloring pages, and trained staff members to help. Nate made a bee-line for the area and had a blast. It was just what he needed after sitting on a train for a long ride.
Auntie Anne was a little worried about our seats. The tickets showed that we had two sets of two seats. We assumed that it meant we were seated in separate rows, which Chad and I would happily accommodate. As we were ushered into the theatre, it dawned on us…we weren’t in separate rows. We had our own private box seats. Holey heavenly magic! It was just the four of us in regular chairs that we could move to accommodate whatever Nate needed at the time. It was elevated and had a lot of floor space so Nate could sit on the floor. And we had a spectacular view of the stage, the performers in the audience, the drummers in the other box seat areas, and the artists who flew birds and sang right in front of our spot!
It was also the perfect vantage point to see everyone’s experience. During the show, the house lights were up slightly (and Nate loved tracing the circle chandeliers with his finger in the sky) and additional lighting was provided by a sea of iPads that people on the spectrum used to share their experience with their friends. It was heartwarming to see that the patrons with autism weren’t just kids — many were adults. This show is perfect because it appeals to and engages everyone; though it was a children’s film, the Broadway event is much more than that. We saw families with one child on the spectrum who attended with a neurotypical sibling; this special performance allowed everyone to participate in a special event, including neurotypical brothers and sisters who might never get the chance to go because it means someone would get left out.
The audience? We were loud. Folks on the spectrum ranged from silence to yelps; moaning to high pitched screams (that would be Nate…who shushed us loudly when we shushed him). The performers? They were pros. They carried on as if we weren’t there and gave everyone the professional performance we deserved. I do think our audience clapped a little louder and with a lot more warmth than most — we clapped often and we clapped well. Applause was used to show appreciation at every little moment and wasn’t reserved just for specific times as directed in the play. I certainly hope the performers understood how much it all meant to those of us in the house.
TDF is definitely responsible for the audiences’ ability to experience and enjoy this show. Nate has never sat through an entire sensory-friendly showing of a movie in the cinema (I think the longest we’ve stayed was a half-hour) and yet he was able to make it through the entirety of this 2.5 hour performance. I expected a lot of empty seats after intermission as I figured friends would have met their limit; I saw very few. When a person on the spectrum became overwhelmed by the experience, TDF staff magically appeared with a fidget and an offer of help. Our families were allowed to come and go as we pleased, with some taking breaks in the play area during the performance, and volunteers were located at every exit to help facilitate this.
If the behavior required greater aid, this magical woman whose shirt read SPECIALIST showed up. She was a social specialist/behavior analyst. We had one on our floor and we suspect there was one on each floor of the theatre. Before the show and during intermission, some friends fell to the floor and became immobilized and POOF! The SPECIALIST arrived! Some friends had difficulty navigating the public bathroom experience. POOF! The SPECIALIST to the rescue. It was magic. MAGIC. And now I want to have a SPECIALIST appear in my home all the time, too.
I cannot stress enough how magical and meaningful this experience was for our family. We listened to the soundtrack and read social stories about The Lion King for a month prior. When Rafiki got on stage and sang her opening line, I’ll never forget how Nate snapped to attention with a look of, “I KNOW THIS SONG!” and suddenly he realized what we had been working toward. Without opportunities like this, we wouldn’t get to go to the theatre; it just wouldn’t be an option. And here’s Nate, at age 5, getting to attend a Broadway show — that he loved. And now our horizons are a little broader, knowing that live arts can engage our son — can be something that we all share — and it’s something we plan to do in the future.
One thing I noticed (from the spectacular vantage point in our box seats….) was the audience’s reaction to the performance. There was a lot of chatter from our friends on the spectrum during the narrative parts but it was relatively quiet during the musical numbers — and I don’t think it was the orchestra drowning out their sound. The lighting, movement, costumes, puppetry, and music engaged Nate, too, and it’s made me wonder if he would fare well at a performance of modern dance, which blends almost all of these elements into a sustained performance.
The trips had a lot of firsts for Nate. It was his first train ride; he loved that there were no seatbelts like on planes and in cars and he marveled at how things fast sped by our window.
It was Nate’s first time to Grand Central Station. The instant we emerged from the train tracks, Nate stared up at the bright blue painted sky. In this picture, Nate discovered the wonderful four-sided clock in the middle of the terminal. It was also Nate’s first time in Manhattan. We decided to walk from Grand Central to the Minskoff Theatre. Chad carried Nate (the experience made Nate a little clingy) but he spent the whole time silently looking up at skyscrapers in awe.
Nate also enjoyed the world’s biggest hot dog at Junior’s….
…and we also found out that he likes pastrami!
All told, this was a ten-hour day for us. We left the house at nine and we were home at 7:45 that evening. Nate stayed awake for the whole thing. After his bath, we crawled into bed and I took out his new Simba stuffed animal. (Because Auntie Anne makes treats like a Lion King bag filled with a show shirt and stuffed animal just magically appear out of nowhere….) I sang a part of the opening song (which I shall not share online anytime soon) and Nate giggled – because he knew the song and he knew Simba. And my boy fell asleep and slept straight through the night.
So. That’s the magical part, folks. But here’s the stinky part: there are only four autism-friendly performances on Broadway this season, all due to TDF. This is the first season they’re doing four performances; in previous years, it’s just been one. When The Lion King performance that we attended went on sale, the tickets sold out in four hours. There’s obviously a demand for this kind of programming but they can’t keep up with it without funding. If you’re so moved, make a gift to TDF for this program. I can promise you that the funding will be well-used (Auntie Anne is in charge of that at TDF, after all!), As we’ve shown with our past fundraising efforts here, many small gifts can add up to have a big impact. (Put “Nate is Great” in the comments so Auntie Anne knows you’re a fan!)
If you’re interested in participating in the event, click here to join their mailing list and keep informed about upcoming autism-friendly productions and performance dates. Do everything you can to attend — because it truly is magical.
PS This blog post got picked up over at Autism Speaks’ blog! Check it out here!