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Your ATN@Work: Autism-friendly Opera? Yes!

By Lauren Weaver, coordinator of organizational outreach at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorder (TRIAD). Vanderbilt TRIAD is one of 14 centers in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN).

There are many stereotypes about opera that may strike you as challenging for anyone on the autism spectrum:

Opera’s loud, right? Performances go on forever. Story lines are convoluted. And often as not, it’s in a foreign language!

Despite all these stereotypes, the staff at the Nashville Opera knew they had something wonderful for everyone – including children and adults with autism. And so began TRIAD’s collaboration with our city’s great opera to increase accessibility for audience members on the autism spectrum.

At TRIAD, we’re working to create a dynamic network of arts, recreation and educational partners united in the goal of making Nashville a welcoming place for individuals with autism and their families. In doing so, we hope to be a model for the nation.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you may already know about our work with the Nashville Zoo and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The Nashville Opera is another of our wonderful community partners.

A new partnership
Our partnership with the Nashville Opera is still young. It began just two years ago when we reached out to the Nashville Opera. Already we have reason to be proud.

Let’s begin with Nashville Opera’s long-standing “On Tour” program, which features a pianist and four performers from the opera’s Mary Ragland Young Artist Program. Each year, this six-week program puts on 80 performances for nearly 25,000 students, teachers and parents at more than 40 schools throughout middle Tennessee. In addition, the public is invited to several free performances.

In 2014, with our help, the “On Tour” program included the Nashville Opera’s first “inclusive” performance – modified to support individuals with disabilities and their families. The children’s opera being performed was John Davies’ Billy Goats Gruff, which addresses the issue of bullying. We couldn’t have planned it better.

First we met with Chandra McKern, the opera’s director of education and outreach, to look at ways to modify the theater’s physical space to make the performance more “autism friendly.” This included creating a clearly marked quiet space near the performance hall where families could retreat, as needed. Inside the performance hall, we dimmed the lighting and projected a visual schedule of the performance on a screen to the left of the set. We also set up areas where audience members could opt to stand up during a performance without disturbing those sitting behind them.

Chandra also sent us information about the script so we could develop materials to send to registered audience members prior to the performance. At TRIAD, we work hard to ensure that the materials we develop are based on research demonstrating the what kinds of tools and supports are most effective for individuals with autism.

For example, we developed story-based preparatory materials for different levels for learning. This included a storyboard, or visual schedule, of the performance’s sequence of events – similar to the story board projected onto the screen during the performance.

We know that these types of visual supports help many people with autism by creating a sense of predictability for the unfolding event. This is especially important to help those with autism adapt to a new routine or experience. We emailed these preparatory materials to the registered attendees a few days before the performance so caregivers had time to prepare their children.

The response from our community was so rewarding. More than 30 families affected by autism attended, and the local media featured the event prominently – with coverage in The Tennessean and by WKRN-TV News 2.

Rave reviews from families
After the performance, we emailed a survey to participants. The responses conveyed the event’s success:

“I'm so glad that my child was given the opportunity to be exposed to this wonderful way to express art,” one parent wrote. “This allows her to open her horizons, be herself and to practice her social skills in an environment that is accepting and kind to her and me!!!”

Many attendees responded that they had never dreamed of attending an opera with their child. All the respondents indicated they would like to attend another one!

An important partner
Noah Speigel, Nashville Opera’s chief operating officer, is a leader in Tennessee’s “Arts for All” campaign. Its goal is to make the arts more accessible to individuals with disabilities.

“Working with TRIAD is one of the most rewarding experiences of producing our On Tour program each year,” he says. “We see the joy on children’s faces at they actively engage in the performances, and experience the elements of the opera in ways that enliven the theatrical experience. More than just the children, we see parents who are able to experience a community event free of judgment and fear, where they know their child is able to experience the opera however they choose—singing along, screaming with delight, moving about freely—whatever moves them to enjoy the performance.”

This year, Noah focused a large segment of his staff’s annual retreat on the Arts for All mission. We supported this effort with a three-hour training on potential barriers to access for those who have autism. We also developed a survey to assess the staff’s comfort levels and experiences with persons who have disabilities. This included questions about potential barriers they saw and resources they would like made available to meet the needs of audience members with disabilities. This helped us have a wonderful conversation with the opera staff about ways to decrease anxiety for both audience members and themselves.

We also invited speakers from our community to share their experiences with the opera staff. They included a Vanderbilt professor who has autism and a parent of child with autism who attended the inclusive performance of Billy Goats Gruff. They inspired us with their experiences with music and community events. In doing so, they helped break down some common stereotypes about autism.

Jack and the Beanstalk!
Last month, TRIAD and Nashville Opera hosted the second annual inclusive children’s opera. This year’s performance was John Davies’ Jack and the Beanstalk. More than 150 people registered for the autism-friendly, Valentine’s Day event.

Again, we helped the families prepare for the performance with support materials that we sent in advance. (You can view these supports for both years’ performances on our community resources page, here.)

Again, we received great appreciation from families for the autism-friendly opportunity. They expressed particular gratitude for an environment where their children’s vocalizing and movements were not just tolerated, but welcomed.

We were so gratified to watch as families not only enjoyed the performance, but also took the opportunity to connect with other families to share their challenges and interests. After the performance, the cast invited the children and their families on stage and behind the scenes to ask questions, take pictures and explore the set and props. It was a great day for all.

We look forward to our continued collaboration with the Nashville Opera and hope to be able to replicate this model with other opera associations nationwide.

* Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
* Find the ATN center nearest you 
* Explore our archive of ATN expert-advice blogs and news stories 

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.