Craig and Ana Maria Muñiz-Leen are theater fans and enjoy sharing the arts experience with children Alexandra, 8, and Pierce, 2. But the Coral Gables couple faces a challenge.
Alexandra has severe autism and Pierce has a milder form of the oft-misunderstood disorder that affects the brain’s ability to process information. Overstimulation from flashing lights, sudden or loud sounds and unfamiliar settings can cause individuals with the sensory disorder to become frightened, disoriented or upset.
Theater and museum groups in South Florida, in the spirit of inclusion and with the support of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, who works with The Children’s Trust for funding, have begun to promote sensory-friendly programming. The Sensory Saturday performances are designed and aimed toward families like the Leens with children who have sensory processing and autism spectrum disorders.
To achieve optimal conditions, these theaters dim the lights and lower the volume to consistent sound levels, along with eliminating sudden special effects, such as strobe lights. Noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs are available and “quiet rooms,” staffed by volunteer specialists, are provided so that children who feel the need to get away from the main house can seek a more relaxed space. The performances are live streamed into these quiet rooms so that everyone can still feel a part of the show.
Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores, under Judy Litt, director of education and community engagement, was a trailblazer locally for the effort thanks to the group’s 2008 production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which was a partnership with the University of Miami’s and Nova Southeastern University’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. The theater also teams with its partner, O Cinema, for sensory friendly movies.
“Major venues like the Arsht and Kravis and Broward Center had accommodations and access for adults. We decided it was time we offered some sort of services for families and children,” Litt said.
But services for the visually impaired or hard of hearing, like sign-interpreted shows, didn’t go far enough.
“There was another population not being served and that was for children and their families who were on the autism spectrum and related disabilities and they should have the ability to enjoy live theater performances like everyone else,” Litt said. “So we just needed to make some accommodations where they could feel safe and welcome. These children might have certain types of behavior, they may be walking around, they may be expressing themselves or just being themselves, but they have the opportunity to be in a theater setting, too.”
Miami Children’s Theater in Kendall also came on board in December with its presentation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid and subsequent productions. Miami Children’s Theater plans to expand its Sensory Saturdays offerings to Pinecrest Gardens in October with presentations of Willy Wonka, Mary Poppins and Jungle Book.
“It was a heartwarming and overwhelming success. The highlight of that production being the ‘meet and greet’ with the show’s characters,” said Tim Fath, director of theater operations. “The look of wonderment on our guests’ faces as they met Ariel, Sebastian and other Little Mermaid characters was incredible.”