On Sunday, Dec. 1, the Lensic Performing Arts Center will offer its first sensory-friendly performance. These shows — sometimes called autism friendly, low sensory, or relaxed — provide a subdued theater experience designed for autistic guests and others who struggle with overstimulation from sensory input.
Three primary adjustments are made during sensory-friendly shows. Flashing or intense lights are eliminated, while house lights remain on at 30 percent, just enough to allow people to see; sound is capped at 90 decibels; and quiet spaces are available during the event. Guests are also notified in advance about what to expect from beginning to end.
“We want to make shows universal so everyone can enjoy them,” says Joel Aalberts, the Lensic’s executive director. “It’s the same as ensuring we have seating for people in wheelchairs and large-print programs.”
Aalberts says the adjustments are minimal and might even go unnoticed, but these minor tweaks can make a huge difference to those who are sensitive. Each sensory-friendly show is clearly marked and described at Lensic.org.
A matinee performance of Wise Fool’s Circus Luminous: Chaos! kicks off the program. Because of the circus company’s commitment to social justice and inclusivity, Aalberts thought the organization would be a perfect partner. The next such event, slated for March, is magician, storyteller, and autism educator Kevin Spencer’s The Magic of Kevin Spencer. Through the Lensic’s educational outreach initiative, Spencer has visited special-needs classrooms throughout Santa Fe to teach and perform magic with students.
In the early stages of planning sensory-friendly shows, Lensic staff turned to the TDF National Autism-Friendly Performance Training Program for guidance and resources. A nonprofit based in New York, TDF (formerly known as Theatre Development Fund) founded the program in 2012 with a mission to eliminate barriers to attendance for live performances. This year, the Lensic is one of 12 of its autism advisory partnerships around the country; 48 venues have used the program since it began.
“As one parent said at a recent autism-friendly performance of The Lion King, ‘This should be called a no apology zone,’ ” says Lisa Carling, director of TDF accessibility programs. “That’s exactly what we are after — that feeling of being in a safe space and not having to explain anything in regard to atypical behavior.”
While the majority of those who attend these shows are on the autism spectrum, people with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, among other conditions, also benefit.
“These kids don’t have the same opportunities for entertainment. They’re so limited. They can’t even go to movies because it can be too intense,” Aalberts says. “We’re a community performing arts center, and I think this offering will strengthen the whole community.”