In the beginning of its 2017 season, the Wharton Center announced its initiative to host sensory friendly performances — productions with stage setups that accommodate children and adults on the autism spectrum.
“It’s a huge segment of the population that has experienced live theater before and that’s what our mission is, to bring people into the theater to experience what it’s like,” said Wharton Center Public Relations Manager Bob Hoffman.
Each show is performed in a supportive environment that includes lower sound levels, the elimination of potentially startling special effects and vastly dimmer stage lights.
“This is a friendly environment where you can stand up or sit down, you can take in your water, your fidget toys, anything you want in the theater to make you feel comfortable and still able to enjoy production,” Hoffman said.
In order for Friday’s sensory friendly performance of “Clementine” to be special for guests and first timers, the Wharton Center designated quiet and calm spaces, activity areas, had trained volunteers and professionals onsite, and also had sensory support items like earplugs and headphones.
In the next room, there were arts and crafts activities and a special guest Julia, the first Muppet with autism from Sesame Street. Children were excited to see and meet an animated character who was just like them.
Not knowing much about autistic children and the sensory sensitive community, Hoffman did not know the “why” behind the shows, until he met 13-year-old Dominic Blatnik after October’s sensory friendly performance of “Cat in the Hat.” Blatnik was diagnosed with autism at the early age of two and later diagnosed with ADHD at three years old.
“I had no idea, because it didn’t enter my life. Now I know we have to shout from the rooftop and educate people on these things,” said Hoffman.
Blatnik had never been to see a live performance until seeing the sensory friendly version of “Cat in the Hat.”
“He really likes it and he was able to make it through the whole day. He sat there transfixed and mesmerized. This is something we can do together,” his mother, Cathy Blatnik said.
The elder Blatnik has the problem of getting her son to relax in elements not familiar to him. She mentioned her stress levels at regular shows and how she is always on high alert about his social skills.
“The good thing about being able to have Dominic in a supportive and friendly atmosphere is that we all ‘get’ it. No explanation is needed or required when a child is flapping their arms, shouting out, can’t sit still or are talking to themselves,” said Blatnik. “To be able to look around and see everyone having a good time without being judged was a wonderful feeling for me. I can say that if the Wharton Center hadn’t started these sensory friendly performances, I don’t think I would have ever taken Dominic there.”
The next sensory friendly performance at the Wharton Center, “Disney’s The Lion King” is Saturday, July 21.