There’s no shushing or shaming at Wharton Center’s sensory-friendly shows

Every year, around Christmas time, eighth-grader Dominic Blatnik used to watch his mom take his older sister to see “The Nutcracker” at MSU’s Wharton Center, wondering why he couldn’t come along.

“I told him he’d make too much noise,” his mother, Cathy Blatnik, said.

Dominic, 13, is mild to moderate on the autism spectrum and has epilepsy and ADHD. He’s been in special education since he was three. Now, Dominic has a spiffy suit ready for his first-ever visit to the Wharton Center Oct. 29, thanks to the first in a program of sensory-friendly performances for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other sensitivities.

Sensory-friendly performances sweep away fears of shushing and shaming and create a welcoming space for people with a variety of neurodiverse characteristics. Like many people on the autism spectrum, Dominic is sensitive to loud noises.

“If a man is singing in church, he’s fine,” Cathy said. “If it’s a lady with a highpitched voice, he covers his ears.”

The shows are less intense overall than regular shows, with fewer surprises. Sound levels are lower, with no sudden shocks. House lights stay on at a low level throughout the performance. It’s OK to bounce up and down, stand up and move around. Quiet areas and activity areas are available, and trained volunteers and professionals will be on hand all night.

The project starts small, with “Dr. Suess’s The Cat in the Hat” Oct. 29, in the Pasant Theatre, and finishes very big, with “Disney’s The Lion King” July 25, in the 2400-seat Cobb Great Hall. In between, “Clementine” will get the sensory-friendly treatment in the Pasant Theatre March 25.

When Blatnik takes Dominic to restaurants or other public places, she dreads the inevitable hostile glances and questioning looks.

“We’re used to the way he is, but other people ask, ‘Why is he talking to himself? Why isn’t he answering?’” Blatnik said. “I try to explain in a nice way, because you can get more with a smile with a frown, but it’s not fun to be stared and laughed at. I’d have my guard up all the time.”

A new world opened up to her when she started taking Dominic to sensory-friendly movie screenings at NCG Cinemas. (Locally, Celebration Cinemas also offer them.) If Dominic’s attention wanders and he tries to sit on her lap or lay on the floor — as often happens when the popcorn runs out — nobody cares.

“Nobody tells you to be quiet,” Blatnik said. “It’s very refreshing and makes me so much more comfortable to be able to sit there and not wonder, if Dominic starts talking to me, nobody’s going to stare or point.”

The grand scale of the Wharton Center makes it even more intimidating. Theater patrons on the autism spectrum are bombarded by upsetting stimuli many theatergoers take for granted, from the stark appearance and roaring noise of the parking structure to the little “beep” of scanners when tickets are taken.

“The Wharton Center is an awesome place, but it can be kind of overwhelming,” Blatnik said. “It’s a big place. People are staring at you.”

Dominic has had seven seizures in the past two years. Blatnik and Dominic’s doctors believe that stress is the cause.

“We try to keep life stressed down,” Cathy said.

“If you’re on the spectrum, you don’t like surprises,” Wharton Center marketing director Diane Willcox said. “We have to become part of their routine.”

Sticking to routine is crucial to Dominic and many others on the autism spectrum. Every activity for the day is written on a white board at home so he knows what to expect.

“Just getting into a car, without knowing where and when he will arrive, is stressful and confusing,” Blatnik said.

Carefully structured “social stories,” given in handouts and on Wharton’s website, tell what to expect when you come to the theater.

“They took a lot of time putting this together and done a lot of work to make it comfortable,” Blatnik said. “It starts with driving into the parking garage, stepping out. It might be loud, with lots of light. It gives you an idea of what comes next.”

The project goes beyond the Wharton Center and plugs into a cluster of education and research programs at MSU, including the Research in Autism, Intellectual and Neurodevelopmental program.

Volunteers staffing the performances take a three-hour training session donated by professors in the College of Education.

“It’s basically etiquette and respect,” Willcox said. “How do you interact with someone who is on the spectrum, with someone who is non-verbal?” Wharton’s community partners for the project include Peckham Inc., the Mid-Michigan Autism Association and the lead partner, Delta Dental of Michigan.

Ticket prices are discounted, but the shows cost the Wharton Center as much as regular shows to present. In the case of “The Lion King,” the Wharton Center had to buy up all 2,400 seats in the house, at regular price beforehand.

But Wharton Center director Michael Brand hopes to do better than discounting tickets.

Because specialized care and services for people with disabilities often stretch many families’ budgets to the limit, the Wharton is asking for donations to fund scholarship tickets. Families that get scholarship money go to the shows for free.

“The Cat in the Hat” has been on the Blatnik family calendar for weeks already.

“He’s starting to get excited,” Blatnik said. “I’m very happy about what they’re doing because it’s going to help a lot of people.”

Sensory Friendly Performances “Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat” 1 p.m. Sun., Oct. 29 “Clementine” 1 p.m. Sun., March 25 Wharton Center Pasant Theatre “Disney’s The Lion King” 2 p.m. Sat., July 21 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall