Autism and other neuro-atypical conditions are often described as “invisible disabilities.” In recent years, however, cultural and entertainment offerings for people with autism and other invisible disabilities have become ever more visible in New York City. The arts community has led the way developing programs that reach beyond the so-called normal world of patrons to nurture audiences that have historically been left out.
Nowhere is this trend more excitingly evident than in the theater world, where a growing number of shows and groups cater to people with autism—both as part of the audience as well as onstage, with players on the spectrum performing alongside neurotypical actors. Art museums and dance companies are also creating programs that make it possible for a neuro-diverse population to enjoy, participate in and benefit from New York City’s extraordinary cultural riches.
Autism-Friendly Broadway Shows
The Theatre Development fund presents six autism-friendly performances of Broadway shows a year. Productions are altered to decrease their visual and auditory stimuli, including reducing or eliminating loud noises and sudden bright lights. Also, house lights are dimmed to about 30 percent but never go completely dark, and break areas are set aside for those who need quiet time during the show. Tickets are available only to those with family members or children on the autism-spectrum; to be notified when tickets go on sale, patrons need to subscribe to the Theater Development Fund’s (TDF) Theater Access program. (Subscribing is free but requires proof of eligibility.) The program has a list of roughly 10,000 names, says Lisa Carling, director of TDF Accessibility Programs, and it is this list that is notified first before tickets go on sale (six to eight weeks before the performance date). Theatergoers should be prepared to move fast to get seats—Carling says performances usually sell out within 24 to 48 hours. Typically, those who attend these shows will buy up to four to six tickets for accompanying family members, friends and caregivers. Tickets are sold at discounted prices. The three shows set for the first half of 2020 are Wicked, on February 2; Harry Potterand the Cursed Child, on March 1, with a Part I performance at 1pm and Part II at 6:30pm; and Aladdin, on May 3.
The program launched in the 2010–11 season with a single sold-out performance of The Lion King. There was then—and continues to be—intense demand. “It’s heart-wrenching, because such opportunities are few and far between,” says Carling. “Parents constantly tell us that ‘you make memories for us.’”
For more information, visit tdf.org.
Other NYC Theater
It’s not only Broadway where productions serve this audience. Lincoln Center, which has long been a champion of accessibility for its performance spaces, has a program called Passport to the Arts. It offers music, dance and drama classes and performances for children, teens and adults with disabilities. Although plenty of attendees live in the New York City area, visitors are welcome to take advantage of it while they’re in town. Passport to the Arts events are free, but registration is required. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-875-5375. For more information, visit lincolncenter.org.
A growing number of theater companies specialize in autism-friendly performances—and also include neuro-diverse actors as part of the company. The CO/LAB Theater Group, for instance, which launched in 2010, works with longtime members and class attendees to write, produce and perform in its productions. Though the participatory nature of their programming means, naturally, a focus on NYC residents, performances are certainly open to visitors. Becky Leifman, the group’s executive director, notes that visitors are also welcome to join CO/LAB’s occasional Theater Topic workshops, interactive meetings where attendees can learn about theater.
For more information, visit colabtheatergroup.com.
A number of other theater companies with similar approaches began springing up around the same time as CO/LAB. Below you’ll find websites for several that offer programming for a neuro-diverse audience. Note that the companies may specialize in different age groups.
• ActionPlay: actionplay.org
• DreamStreet Theatre Company: dreamstreetnyc.org
• EPIC Players: epicplayersnyc.org
• Mark Morris Dance Group: markmorrisdancegroup.org
• New York City Children’s Theater: nycchildrenstheater.org
• Spellbound Theatre: spellboundtheatre.com
The interactive online arts and events calendar maintained by the Museum Access Consortium (MAC) is another valuable resource for autism-friendly programming. For more information, visit macaccess.org.