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Autism-Friendly Lion King Takes Broadway by Storm

But for one mom, it was a cliffhanger  

Most children and teens with autism spectrum disorder also have anxiety-provoking sensory issues that can make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to attend dark, loud movies, let alone a live show. So when word spread that the nonprofit Theatre Development Fund was going to present Broadway's first-ever autism-friendly performance, Sunday's special matinee of The Lion King, thrilled parents quickly scooped up tickets. (TDF is already looking to schedule another.)  

Parents were sent advance materials to help prepare children, including customizable social stories about the things they would experience; supports in the theater included rope lines in the lobby, trained volunteers, and quiet areas for those feeling overwhelmed. They also tailored the show to eliminate loud, booming noises and strobe lights.

To find out how the Lion King experiment went for one family, we spoke with the mother of a typically developing 6-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son with PDD-NOS. (Pervasive Development Delays-Not Otherwise Specified, a catch-all phrase that encompasses a wide range of those with ASD who aren't covered by other diagnoses, including autism and Asperger's) as well as Sensory Processing Disorder.

 Armed with the TDF materials, this mom went into high gear to help her son have the best experience possible—only to be reminded that even the best planning can't shield kids like hers from a stress-inducing world, let alone a Broadway show. And yet she'd do it again in a heartbeat. Here's her unnerving, uplifting story.                          —Beth Arky

My son often has trouble with transitions, noise and darkness, so we prepared him for the show as much as we could. We read social stories, downloaded the music on his iPod and watched YouTube videos of the live show so he'd know what to expect. The day before the show, we went to a bowling party in Times Square, so we walked around and he saw the theater. That night, we watched the movie. He couldn't wait. 

The day of the show, we left early, in time to have pizza and walk around a little bit to enjoy the atmosphere. He was saying, "Can we go in? Can we go in?" We took a picture in front of the theater; everyone was so friendly. 

When we got inside, I was so impressed. There were swarms of volunteers wearing yellow T-shirts with the picture of the Lion King so you could find them. They were amazing; they helped at the escalators and in the bathrooms. They had pouches with fidget toys and "coping cards" from Simba, Pumba and Timon offering tips to help agitated kids calm down the "Hakuna Matata Way!" And inside the theater, they held up green lights to warn parents when there'd be applause or a change of scenes, allowing them to help their child cope by putting on headphones or covering their ears. 

So there we are and my son is excited. But as we go to step inside the theater, he puts on his breaks. He stops, panics and cries, "No, no, no, I can't go in, I'm scared, I want to go home, don't make me do this." I was caught off guard completely.

My husband and daughter go to our seats. I know that at this moment I'm the only one who can get him in. I don't want him to miss this experience so I try to help him calm down. It takes such energy for him to do it. We use the phrase "gut it out"—in other words, "Stick it out, you can do it." I say, "Take deep breaths, listen to my voice." I didn't want to take him to a quiet room. I knew if I took him out of the vestibule, I'd never get him in to see the show.

I spend a good 10 minutes talking. I tell him, "This is especially for kids like you who don't like things too dark or too loud. You know you can trust me. I know you want to leave, but you don't want you to miss the characters coming down aisles—you were so looking forward to seeing the giraffes." I remind him of the time we went to the Thomas the Train live show: "I told you to squeeze my hand and you got through it and loved it. You're going to get this just like that."

Now he's calming down. He's at the wall in the vestibule and he sees his dad and sister in the seats. I make him stay there so he can get the visual. I tell him, "Stand here, take deep breaths." But he's crying real tears and it's breaking my heart. I have to come up with something so I ask him, "Do you want to go get a candy bar?" The snack bar is 10 steps up and he wants to eat it right away but I tell him he has to wait to eat it in his seat. I get him back downstairs but he still won't go in.

Now he wants to back upstairs to go to bathroom. I let him go into the men's room by himself but I realize immediately that it's a bad move; he's never going to come out. Some dads tell me the men's room is empty and I can go in to coax him out. At that point, some of the actors in costume are lining up near the bathrooms. We'd been talking about how at the beginning of the show, the animals come down the aisle and it's breathtaking. I tell him, "Honey, the birds are out here, the costumes are gorgeous, you've got to come out."

Meanwhile, there are occupational therapists walking around giving out fidget toys. I run up to get one. I manage to coax him of the bathroom to see the costumes, hand him the fidget and coax him downstairs. But he's up against the wall again. He can see the seats. The music starts and I'm inside, three feet away. I say, "Look, the sun's coming up." Now he's intrigued. Then the singing starts. I whisper to him and finally get him inside, standing at the rail. The ushers are about to close the doors but when one of the volunteers sees what's going on she tells them, "We're not going to close the doors now, there's a boy still coming in." That would never happen at a regular performance.

At that point the tears are streaming down my face but he's watching the show as the animals start coming down aisle. All you see are parents pointing. It's the most breathtaking sight and the best part of the show and I didn't want him to miss it.

He says "Wow" and goes right to our seats. After I've spent 20 minutes sweating and stressing, he sits down. I'm trying to take deep breaths and then he looks at me like it never happened. He says, "Mom, did you turn your phone off?"

After that he enjoys the entire show, laughing and clapping when he's supposed to. It's unbelievable. None of the clapping or noise bothers or distracts him, even when there's a standing ovation.He even transitions fine during the 15-minute intermission—he comes and goes without an issue. In the lobby, the TDF press person stops us for an interview and my son excitedly grabs the microphone from my husband to speak.

And then we go outside and he melts down on the street. He's 80 pounds and not controllable. We go down to the subway and he's not himself. He runs away. I see he's escalating and I have to get him back upstairs. He's moaning and crying. He's physically drained.

He wants to take a cab. I finally find one but the driver doesn't want to run into the traffic up ahead. So we get off at Columbus Circle and he finally finds himself. We get on the train and he puts the iPod on.

You forget how exhausting it is for these kids to cope, given that their perception of life is so different from ours. As they get older and there are more good days than bad, you forget these issues are still there. There were kids and adults at this show, on all points on the spectrum. I did see people leave early—some right away, some midway through. A lot stayed for the entire show, too. There were also people coming in and out. But it was absolutely fine. We were all there for the same reason. It felt community-oriented. I didn't have to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable.

I don't know when something like this is going to happen again, but I'd like to try more Broadway. I can now remind him of how he did it this first time, and we can talk about what we can do to make easier next time—maybe Mary Poppins.

Published: October 3, 2011

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