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Max Granitz
BY Max Granitz

10 Tips for Taking Children with Special Needs to the Theater

Taking your child to the theater can be a great experience. Exposure to the arts has been proven to improve cultural awareness and language development in children. Not only that, but it can be a great bonding experience. Here are 10 Tips for Taking Children with Special Needs to the Theater to help make your experience a positive one.

1. Consider the Material

10 Tips for Taking Children with Special Needs to the Theater

When you make your plans to journey to the theater, first look at shows available. Depending on where you are, your options may be greater or more limited. In cities like New York and Chicago, there are countless large-scale and smaller productions running at once. In small towns with one or more community theaters, there may only be one show going on at a time. Consider all your options.

Then, look up the plot of the play or musical. Some shows may not be age-appropriate. If your child has increased sensitivity to loud noises, bright lights, and/or any other sensory aspects a show may have, that may not be your best option.

2. Consider the Theatre

10 Tips for Taking Children with Special Needs to the Theater

Before heading off to the theatre, be sure to do your research on the accessibility of the venue. Is it accessible for a wheelchair? What is the layout of the theatre like? Will you be able to comfortably get in and out in the event you need to leave immediately? These are definitely some things to consider while preparing for your outing.

3. Consider the Running Time

The running time may be an issue. If your child cannot sit still for long periods of time (over an hour even with an intermission), try and find a show that is shorter, or at least one in a theater where you and your child can quietly exit the performance and take a breather in the lobby. This may be harder in larger theaters, such as those on Broadway. Not all theaters are accessible, usually older ones. Try and find seats closer to the aisle, or the front, if your child cannot climb many stairs and if you can afford orchestra seats.

You can view seating charts and information on accessibility on a given theater’s website.

4. Begin Preparations

Okay, so you’ve bought tickets, the show is a few weeks away, your child is excited. Yet, you may still be nervous about how they will do when they’re actually there. Help them practice sitting for long periods by taking them to a movie, possibly. If they have difficulty not talking, teach them how to use their ‘inside voice’. The Theater Development Fund released a video in 2014 titled “Getting to the Theater“, as a resource for parents of children with special needs.

5. Time Out Your Visit

When you arrive at the theatre, there may be a long line to get in, as well as to get to your seats, for bathrooms, etc. Find ways to keep your child occupied while waiting in these lines, perhaps by bringing along a prefered item. Also, consider arriving a little early to avoid lengthy wait times.

6. Additional Help

Before leaving for the theater, call them in advance (at least a week) and let them know of your child’s disability. This will prevent any possible issues with the staff, and can improve your experience. The Autism Theater Initiative is a great resource. The website lists information on how to help your child with loud noises, what to do if they need a break and how to move through crowds, and even has a video on how to help your child if they have a sensory overload.

7. Curtain Up, Light the Lights…

10 Tips for Taking Children with Special Needs to the Theater

You’ve made it, you’re in the lobby, it’s almost time. When you arrive, and as mentioned above, try to arrive early, survey the the layout. How many bathrooms are there, and is there a family bathroom if your child cannot use it themselves or are too young? How many people are attending the performance, based off the crowd in the lobby? Is there a place to purchase food if your child is hungry? And is it easy to make your way to the doors if your child has to leave?

8. During the Performance

Once you’re in your seats, look around for an easy path to the lobby. Make sure your child is able to see the stage, and if not, request to change seats just before the performance starts, by speaking to an usher. Explain the situation. They are almost always accommodating, but this will be harder to do in small theaters, or during a very full performance.

During the actual performance, keep an eye on your child. See how they react to the experience. The magic of theater is that, unlike movies, you are drawn into the world of the story, often unaware that it is fictional. It is no different for individuals with special needs, children or otherwise. Just to be safe, make sure once more the exit to the lobby is not too far off.

9. Stretch Your Legs

During intermission, though they average at only fifteen minutes, make an effort to get up from your seats and find a bathroom that isn’t too crowded. Maybe pick up a drink or snack from concessions. Just be back by the time the lights in the theater flash, or you may miss the start of the second act.

10. Final Advice

From the time you buy your tickets to the time you exit the show, remember… theater, while an aspect of many cultures, is experienced differently by everyone. Your child may not understand everything, and it may be a bit overwhelming for them. But you, as their parent, need to reassure them that what they feel is completely valid. Make it an opportunity to grow closer to them.

The Autism Theater Initiative also lists Broadway performances that are designated “Autism-Friendly“. While infrequent, with proper planning, it is possible to attend these. There are approximately four such performances each season, and are listed on the website.

So, with these tips in hand, venture out and share the magic of the stage with your child.

Related Articles: The Benefits of Theatre for Individuals with Special Needs | Stage Lights: How Theatre Can Help Individuals with Autism

Have YOU taken your special needs child to the theatre?

Do you have any additional tips?

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10 Tips for Taking Children with Special Needs to the Theater

 

Max Granitz

Written on August 9, 2016 by:

Max is a 20-year-old college student who just so happens to have Asperger's Syndrome. He will be a junior at Grand Valley State University in the fall, where he is working towards a Bachelor's in Writing. He is an intern at the Friendship Circle of Michigan, and has been a part of the organization since 2004. Aside from writing, his interests include reading, the performing arts, and history.
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