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.”
Miami Children’s Museum on Watson Island celebrated the first anniversary of its sensory-friendly program in July by adding an additional Sunday morning option with the help of community partners the Miami Foundation and the Miami Marlins. About 1,800 visited the museum last year for its Sensory Saturdays.
“It’s a wonderful program that came out of programming we were doing for children at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind. We got such wonderful feedback from that we decided to implement the second Saturday morning of the month to open early, an inclusive, accessibility event,” said Deborah Spiegleman, chief executive officer and executive director of Miami Children’s Museum. “Children with autism or different issues need a lower sensory environment and we want families to interact and network.”
Along with lowered lights and sound, a yoga room and cool down room, the museum created an illustrated storybook to introduce families to museum offerings.
“Oftentimes, when you take an autistic child somewhere, part of it is the fear of the unknown. So we created a pictorial picture book so families can become familiar with the museum before they come and structure a child’s visits according to their needs,” Spiegleman said.
Similarly, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs has created a “Going to the Show” guide to prepare new audiences for a live performing arts experience, said Francine Andersen, chief of arts education. The guide is accessible online at www.miamidadearts.org/artskidsmiami.aspx.
The All Kids Included initiative’s latest theater to provide sensory-friendly Saturday performances is Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.
“I like taking my daughter to plays but it’s difficult because she’d make noise and is sensitive to things,” said Craig Leen, the city attorney for Coral Gables. “It’s nice what they are doing. They’ve been talking to experts to make sure the effects are limited and there is not as much noise. The lights will be better. They [the kids] can make noise and it’s not a big deal, which is a huge thing for me because then I can’t relax. Other people don’t understand. You want them to hear so you leave, or a lot of people don’t bring their kids.”
But to avoid taking part in these outings would be heartbreaking for the Leen family.
“The difficult part is you really want to communicate with your child, what their wants, needs and desires are,” he said. “With autism, sometimes that’s very difficult. My daughter is often in her own world and she’s very happy. When she sees water or feels grass she loves it but loves it in a different way than we do and gets totally engrossed in it. Sometimes you can’t share that world with your child. For a lot of reasons, you need this sort of play hour or a play where they think of the sensitivities of a child with autism.”
Actors’ Playhouse adopted the Sensory Friendly Saturday performances program for its production of Pied Piper in July and plans to hold four more presentations in its 2013-14 Musical Theatre for Young Audiences season, beginning with the opener, Miss Nelson Is Missing on Oct. 19.
“There’s a need for it,” said Barbara Stein, Actors’ Playhouse’s executive producing director. “Everybody knows somebody who has a family member or someone they know who has autism or sensory disorders like Aspergers. Our goal is to give an enriching experience to everyone who comes here.”
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