Did you know that the PSO will perform its first sensory-friendly show on Saturday, June 27, 2015? The concert, entitled “Celebrate Pittsburgh,” will feature the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Resident Conductor Lawrence Loh, and several wonderful guest artists. But what exactly is a sensory-friendly performance? Sensory-friendly performances are designed especially for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, sensory sensitivities, or other disabilities. During these programs, patrons enjoy shows together with family and friends in welcoming, inclusive, and relaxed spaces. Facilities also provide environmental modifications intended to make the experience of traveling to and viewing a performance more pleasant for everyone.
First and foremost, sensory-friendly performances must have non-judgmental, supportive environments so that all patrons feel comfortable attending. Before shows, arts organizations frequently train front of house staff and performers to ensure that everyone is ready to interact with patrons in as helpful and friendly of a manner as possible. So that patrons can freely respond to shows in their own way and without judgment, organizations also relax house rules. Convention requires attendees to remain quiet and seated throughout most shows, but during sensory-friendly performances, patrons are welcome to do things like sing or dance.
A couple months ago, Mary Crummie, a special education teacher at Sunrise School and member of the PSO’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, spoke with me about the importance of letting patrons like her students view performances in environments with relaxed rules. She commented:
I’m sure my students and their families would appreciate a welcoming atmosphere where their vocalizations or other unique reactions to the music would not only be tolerated but understood and appreciated. . . making the whole concert experience more relaxing and therefore more enjoyable. The adults do not have to be “on edge,” planning reactions to “inappropriate” behavior. This opportunity for the adults to relax will, I hope, make the concert more enjoyable for the whole family—something that is often missing from trips to public places, especially when those venues are usually considered to be “quiet” places.
Sensory-friendly performances generally employ other modifications as well. For instance, patrons usually receive pre-visit materials that can help them become familiar with what to expect at an event. These materials might include stories explaining what will happen on the way to and during a show, tip sheets containing information about logistics to make the experience go as smoothly as possible, and visual schedules showing a sequence of activities with pictures. In addition, performance halls often provide quiet rooms that patrons can access when shows become too stimulating. Patrons may receive fidgets they can use to center, as well as headphones to block out unwanted sounds. Most venues also keep the house lights up slightly during shows so that patrons can easily move around when needed. Modifications are generally environmental rather than artistic so that patrons can enjoy the same artistic product seen during other shows; however, most sensory-friendly performances typically do omit any strobe lights or sudden, loud noises that could startle patrons, since patrons do not have time to plan how they will respond to these surprising stimuli.
Kory Antonacci, another PSO Accessibility Advisory Committee member and board-certified music therapist who works at the Woodlands Foundation and UPMC, recently told me how some of these modifications might make the experience of attending a concert more enjoyable for participants from the Woodlands Foundation. She wrote:
My participants at the Woodlands Foundation, children and adults alike (as well as their caregivers!) would absolutely benefit from a sensory-friendly program. Participants would be able to engage in self-expression, singing and clapping along with the music, experiencing it in the moment, as well as having the freedom to take breaks from the performance when necessary. In addition, certain lighting and extreme noises can cause discomfort for individuals, and sensory-friendly programming would allow for all individuals to enjoy the program and provide a sense of comfort in the environment!
Although some patrons with sensory sensitivities may prefer coming to an organization’s conventional performances, others would rather attend performances designed to meet their particular needs. By offering both options, arts organizations can empower patrons by letting them choose to attend the performances where they feel most comfortable.
Come back next week to hear more about sensory-friendly performances from Alyssa Herzog Melby, Director of Education and Community Engagement at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Vanessa Braun, Manager of Employee Engagement and Director of Accessibility at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Alyssa and Vanessa helped spearhead the movement to bring this type of programming to Pittsburgh and will have a great deal to say about last year’s autism-friendly performances of The Lion King and The Nutcracker. Stay tuned to hear more about the PSO’s first sensory-friendly performance as well!