Una #ONSCENE about The Struggles of an Autistic Theatergoer

Una’s experience.

I've been able to see tons of Broadway shows such as:

At these Autism friendly shows, the lights and sounds are modified to make it less overwhelming, the audience is free to talk and move around, and there is extra staff on hand if someone needs help. There are even some break areas in the foyer if you need a rest from the show.

However, TDF relies on donations to keep the program going and can only afford to do about 4 to 5 of these shows a year. So, the number of shows I can see in a sensory-friendly, judgement-free environment are really limited. There are many other shows I want to see but don't get to see it in a way I am able to handle. Whether it be because TDF can't afford to buy out the theatre, the company saying that taking away strobe lights would ‘ruin’ the experience, or the theater does not even think that an audience member with a sensory and/or developmental disability would come to the show because "it's not appropriate for children".

If a special performance is not offered, my only options are to wait for someone to film a bootleg version or I can try attending a ‘normal’ performance and risk being kicked out because of my behaviors, especially if I'm already having a bad day…

And so, I’ve become amazed with the collection of bootleg recordings I’m able to watch from the comfort of my home. I can sing along to the show and pace around the room if I want to. I can also rewind and rewatch specific scenes I like over and over. Many autistic people enjoy repetition. Although of course, there are some legalities about it,  I think actors and writers should consider these videos a form of free advertising, and allow some leniency, particularly because of the lack of Autism-friendly performances - especially because some autistics enjoy photographing everything. For some people, these videos are the only way they can get to see a show, whether it be due to a disability (like me), being unable to afford a ticket, or living in a very secluded area.

If I really want to see a show an there aren’t any modified shows, I have to attend a performance without these changes and sometimes these don’t end up being very pleasant experiences.

For example, at a typical performance of The Lion King, an usher told me I couldn't wear my earmuffs (the kind used at construction sites) inside the auditorium. It took a lot of explaining from a caretaker just so I could get in to the theatre. When I went to see West Side Story at Papermill, there was an insert in the playbill saying that from the scene where the Jets attack Anita onwards you cannot leave or re-enter. In the scene where Chino shoots Tony, I felt I needed a break but I was not allowed to leave. The gunshot sound made me scream (and I was wearing headphones the whole time), and then I heard faint laughter. Then, I was poked at Dear Evan Hansen whenever there was any lighting effect, and at Paw Patrol Live (which I thought would be fine sensory-wise since it's intended for kids), they had strobe/spotlights that shone right into the audience, sweeping back and forth whenever there was music. I moved to the restricted view section but even that didn't help much due to the way the lights moved back and forth.

When I went to Lincoln Center for a Japanese production of the Scottish play (which must not be named), my family had bought tickets because I like Shakespeare and I speak Japanese, but I was not allowed inside. I’d brought a copy of the script in Japanese, which I wanted to read along with the show, due to auditory processing difficulties I often struggle to understand speech regardless of language. I was told my reading light would be a distraction and to just read the English subtitles they had on a screen instead. Upset about the unexpected change, I began to rock back and forth, crying and screaming. I had to leave the auditorium right before the show started, and even if I managed to calm down - which didn't happen -, I would not be allowed back in because of their strict no late seating policy. Eventually, a staff member who was understanding of my situation came and told me I could watch the play on a TV in the lobby, but by then the damage was already done. I could not filter out the noise from behind the closed doors of the auditorium and the other sounds in the lobby. I had to leave shortly into the first act. To make matters worse, not only could they not give me the video of the play, but several articles have stated that this version of the play will be permanently retired. So, I can't even go on a good day.

Having had this experience, and hearing about incidents at The King & I on Broadway and Aladdin in Chicago in which autistic audience members were kicked out of the shows, I'm scared to go to "normal" performances. While I am glad that TDF helps make shows accessible to people like me, I am upset at the theater industry in general for not making accessibility the norm.

Let us know if you've had any similar experiences or any thoughts about this issue