By Heather McLennand-LaMont
Every parent of a child with autism has that ‘box’ in their head. You know the box I mean, the one that you put all your dreams, hopes and expectations after your child was diagnosed with autism. This weekend thanks to the Theater Development Foundation (TDF), I was able to dust off my box, and pull one back out to share with my 7 year old son Liam: a Broadway show. Now, to some this probably sounds silly and possibly trite; but to me, a girl who grew up on the stage and went to school in New York for theater -it was one of the hardest ones to give up. So, when I heard that the TDF was pairing up with “The Lion King” to do the first ever “Autism Friendly” Broadway show, I jumped online and got tickets.
As we had to trek down from Beantown, we had to give drive time and traffic consideration and arrived at the Minskoff Theater almost 2 hours early. I have to say I was worried; Liam was already asking for his earplugs. Luckily there is a Disney Store almost across the street from the Theater, and as long as Liam is on Dad’s shoulders….he can shine on.
We lined up at the theater as early as we could, and camped out while Liam ate lunch. Within five minutes a volunteer stopped by to give us an idea of when the house would open, handed us earplugs and a visual schedule for Liam. She also gave us a visual story of the characters from the Lion King movie paired with the actors from the stage production. All of the volunteers were easily recognizable due to the bright yellow Lion King shirts they wore, and they were able to direct you to anywhere you needed to go in the theater. Once inside there was a ‘”Greeting table” that had more visual schedules as well as a social story for the show. We were also directed to where the sensory break areas were – which we promptly headed to so Liam could do some crashing into beanbags.
On top of the beanbags there was a poster visual aide for how to deal with feeling anxious about the show, as well as little cards entitled “Hakuna Matata” with strategies on how to deal with feeling anxious. A table was set up with coloring sheets, crayons, books with photos from the show, and Simba dolls to play with. There were even small weighted blankets for the child to put over their lap.
Liam took some time dive bombing into the bags, and then we headed into the theater. This isn’t my first time at the Minskoff, but I have to say nothing will ever top this experience. It was probably the most concentrated area of “autism” I had ever encountered, and as I looked out across the theater I realized just how amazing this was. It was a ‘moment of normal’ that as parents of children with autism we so desperately crave. Stimming, twirling, vocalizing, tantrums and screams garnered a smile or a nod of “yah, we know the deal”. We were in the middle of Manhattan, at the “Great White Way” and there was no judgment or explanations needed: our tribe had arrived.
As it got closer to curtain, Liam was having a harder and harder time waiting. He was scared of how loud the production may be. I spent the last 20 minutes giving deep tissue massage, as my husband David ran around looking for things to distract Liam. The old stand by of the iPod did not fly; he was afraid to remove his earplugs for fear the show would start and it would be super loud. Some families ended up watching a live feed with their child in the lobby by the concession stand as just the theater itself with all that open space, people, and noise caused complete and total meltdowns.
In order to make the show more sensory friendly, the sound levels were dropped, strobe lights removed, and slight variations on staging were made. However, minus those few tweaks this was the same show that any person stepping off of Times Square would see.
This was my first time seeing this show, and I loved it. The sets, staging and production were beautiful. Kudos all around to the cast and crew for this was not your typical audience. There was a lot of vocalizing – not surprising everyone was super excited right? Children and adults bounced in their chairs, questions were raised about who was the bad and good guys, screams over dialogue, as well as people shifting in and out of their seats. But, by the beginning of the second act, you felt a shift in the house. It was almost as if everyone realized that something extraordinary was occurring. When the curtain fell, the parents jumped up and gave a standing ovation. Many of us were in tears, and you could see how moved the cast was.
As we left the show, Liam didn’t say much. We knew that he was now “sensory toast” and had to get him in the car and home stat. When asked if he liked the show he said “it’s good”. But today, he proudly brought his Simba and Lion King book in to school and while getting ready for bed I heard the notes of the opening song echo down the hall. I peeked into Liam’s room and he had lined up his animals to take the trek to pride rock while he sang. Acting out the story, just like I used to do after a show when I was a little girl.
Thank you TDF, The Lion King, and all of the volunteers for working so hard to make this dream and many other parents ‘a moment of normal’ come true.
Heather McLennand-LaMont lives with her husband and son in New England.