Sensory friendly theater for special needs kids at the Kennedy Center

For people with sensory sensitivities, a day at the theater can be impossible. Places like the Kennedy Center are making it possible for special needs individuals to take part. Photo: The Kennedy Center

SILVER SPRING, Md., April 21, 2012 — For young people with autism, attending a live theater performance can be all but impossible. There are dozens of obstacles, which vary depending on each individual’s challenges.

Managing the darkness, lines, loud and unexpected sounds, an unfamiliar environment, pressure to behave in the same manner as the rest of theater-going public, and any number of other societal requirements can be overwhelming.

Last weekend, the Kennedy Center joined the ranks of theaters that have created safe, sensory friendly environments for special needs individuals to experience entertainment. The Theatre Development Fund famously held such a performance of The Lion King last fall and the Autism Society of America holds monthly sensory friendly movie showings at select AMC movie theaters.

The Kennedy Center modified a performance of Sleeping Beauty in a pilot program intended not only to create a positive live theater experience for the 200 people in attendance but also to learn how best to run future sensory friendly performances as well. Families with special needs children were invited to attend the free performance, put on in partnership with the Ivymount School & Programs, the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, and the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program.

A Kennedy Center representative says this particular performance was chosen for the pilot project because of the ease with which the show was able to be adapted. David Gonzalez is the writer, director, and sole actor in the show, accompanied only by Daniel Kelly on piano, making it simpler to modify the aspects of the performance that needed to be tuned down.

Gonzalez, who has often worked with autistic children during the 20 years he worked as a music therapist, says that he consulted with his production staff and autism experts to decide how to adjust the performance. The house lights in the theater stayed on at about 50 percent power instead of being put completely out, per usual. Several audio cues were also dialed back in order to not be too loud and jarring. Gonzalez says he also toned down some of the more intense parts of the show, but only by a little.

“I felt that the audience was with me throughout,” he said. “I want to do my part to make art accessible, and this was an easy contribution to make.”

Social story for the Kennedy Center

Part of the social story for the

Kennedy Center performance

In addition to the changes to the actual performance, the Kennedy Center made several other modifications as well. Seating was general admission, allowing families to choose where they wanted to sit, in combination with a smaller audience, allowing for empty seats in the theater and space between families. Furthermore, the show was scheduled at a time when there would be limited crowds at the Kennedy Center for other events.

The hour-long, no-intermission performance was held in the Family Theater, a small, cozy theater with family restrooms available in the theater itself. In addition, the staff had been trained to be inviting and accommodating to attendees’ needs.

Perhaps most importantly, attendees were given encouragement to be themselves. Standing, walking, talking, dancing, fidgeting, and pretty much any other activity typical of kids with special needs was not only allowed but encouraged.

Nora Fitzpatrick attended the performance with her family, including Rory, her daughter with autism. “I thought the whole experience was amazing,” she says. “I love that our kids can just be themselves.”

Families were given opportunities to prepare in advance of the event through social stories posted online and for download. Social stories are commonly used to help individuals with autism understand what to expect at an event or in certain situations through pictures or photographs and simple stories. The Kennedy Center provided three versions of their social story as well as a picture schedule to let attendees know what to expect and when.

The Kennedy Center also offered a “Meet Your Seat” event two days before the performance to allow patrons to do a trial run and so that the environment would be familiar on performance day.

Attendees were asked to fill out surveys both before and after the event to give the Kennedy Center feedback on future sensory friendly performances, which they plan to do next season.

These types of performances are a godsend for families traditionally excluded from theater experiences. Live theater with its intense environment and often expensive ticket prices is prohibitive for families who have children who may not be able to stay for the whole show because they get scared, agitated, or simply express their enjoyment in ways that are not accepted by the majority of the theater-going public. Yet these performances can be magical for individuals with autism who often get entirely wrapped up in entertainment.

David Gonzalez, who says he would love to do more of these types of performances at venues such as the Kennedy Center, says, “I believe in the theater as a place for all people, where the human soul, regardless of its differences, can be nourished and inspired. Through art we feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Of course special needs kids should have these opportunities—to think otherwise is cruel.”

Jack and actors

Daniel Kelly, the author’s son, and David Gonzalez

after the performance

I was able to attend the performance with my own special needs son, who chose a seat in the front row and watched, rapt.

As a parent at the event, I was able to focus on the show as well, unconcerned that my son’s squeaks or fidgeting would disturb other patrons. In fact, I took great joy in the sounds of other individuals behind us who were clearly enjoying the performance in their own way.

I also took long moments to watch my son’s face as he delighted in live theater, something that would be far more stressful in a more typical theater environment.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” says Gonzalez, who goes on to say, “My sense was that the overall experience was well received. The audience was largely attentive and responsive, plus the parents and siblings of the special needs kids were having a good time out at the theater all together in a safe and beautiful space.”

“I could feel the appreciation and the preciousness of the experience,” says Gonzalez, “and that made me want to give my best.”

To be added to a mailing list to receive announcements about sensory friendly programming at the Kennedy Center, contact the Accessibility Office at 202-416-8727 or

Jean writes a personal blog at Stimeyland and an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey. Read more of Jean’s work at Autism Unexpected in the Communities at the Washington Times. Please credit Jean Winegardner and the “Communities at” when linking to this story.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Jean Winegardner

When Jean had her first child in 2001, "autism" was about the scariest word she could think of. Six years later when her second child was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of autism, she was just happy to have a word to help him get the services he needed. Her autism journey has been full of tears, laughter, love and at least one attorney.

Jean blogs about her life with her autistic son, Jack, on her blog, Stimeyland. Her two neurotypical children, Sam and Quinn (one older, one younger than Jack), make frequent appearances there as well. Also at Stimeyland? Jean's quirky sense of humor.

She also runs AutMont, an events calendar listing autism-related events in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Raising a child with special needs is hard for so many reasons, but after living with Jack, Jean wouldn't trade him for anything in the world. Come along with Jean as she experiences the joys that come with parenting a special kid.

You can email Jean anytime at stimeyland at gmail dot com or follow her on Twitter, where, as "Stimey," she offers her world view in snippets of 140 characters or less.

Contact Jean Winegardner


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