Young audience members float in a balloon, view dim lights, and hear the gentle strumming of banjo music all as they embark on a journey filled with imagination.
This is the premise of an interactive theatrical production staged at Lincoln Center Education in New York and geared towards children with autism. Working with eight children per performance, the actors engage the senses of each young audience member through an intimate production based on the classic novel “Around the World in 80 Days.” The show, called “Up and Away,” encourages the children to sit in a mock-up of a hot air balloon while their parents sit in the back seats. Each child interacts with an individual actor, who also serves as an educator.
After about an hour, the children feel as if they have traveled on a journey in a safe setting, notes NBC News. When the show moves the action along, actors explain to the audience exactly what is about to happen.
SENSE Theatre in Tennessee expands on Lincoln Center’s ideas by hosting a two-week camp for children ages 7 to 18 that gets kids on stage and performing. The camp is focused on helping children with autism lower stress while simultaneously working on social and emotional cognitive functions.
Similar to Lincoln Center Education’s program, SENSE Theatre pairs each child with a trained youth actor, who encourages the child to engage in the performance. After two weeks, the participants will stage two performances. This theatrical experience proves anyone can be a star.
Lincoln Center Education’s interactive shows evolve from the program’s belief that theater should be for everyone. Because each child with autism has unique needs, the one-on-one attention from actors encourages play, creativity, exploration and sensory interaction, which are vital to the cognitive development of children with autism. Traditional theater doesn’t accomplish the same goals, as the characters remain on stage and far away from the audience. Sensory-friendly performances encourage youth to interact, make noise and move around in an environment that is perfectly safe for kids with autism.
Sensory-friendly theatrical performances can serve as therapy for children with developmental disorders, such as those on the autism spectrum. Check out the story of “Willy Wonka Jr,” a performance by P94. This school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is dedicated solely to educating children with severe developmental disorders.
Doctors and behavioral specialists note that children’s artistic talents enhance reading and language arts learning in standard curricula. Following P94’s example, programs all over the United States continue to expand sensory-friendly performances for kids.