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Your ATN@Work: Finding new ways to create autism-friendly symphonies

This Autism Treatment Network center created an autism-friendly space where families can enjoy intimate symphony concerts

By Kelly McKinnon-Bermingham, director of behavior intervention at the University of California-Irvine’s Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, in Santa Ana, California. The center is one of 14 sites in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN).

We know that many families who have a child on the autism spectrum avoid attending live performances because they worry about how their children will react to the unfamiliar sensory experience.

Concert halls and other performance venues can be big and intimidating. It can also be particularly difficult for children who have autism to sit quietly and concentrate on the music.

As one parent explained to me, “When my daughter was younger, we tried to attend a concert. I thought she would like it because they did a preview of the show at her school. But we just stayed in the bathroom the whole time.” After that, this family stopped attending symphony performances even though she and her husband love classical music.

Stories such as this mom’s inspired us to partner with Orange County’s Pacific Symphony to bring its Heartstrings program to our families. Heartstrings is an outreach program designed to provide free concerts and musical-enrichment activities to a wide range of underserved groups in our community.

In partnering with the symphony, we decided to host three performances a year. By bringing the musicians into our center, we’re able to provide a comfortable and sensory-friendly environment. We want each child to be free to laugh, dance, play and learn while the whole family enjoys the performance. We also want to provide an experience that engages multiple senses.

For instance, we design a slide show to accompany the live music. For a recent performance, these images included cartoon elephants dancing in tutus to accompany the playful “The Elephant,” the double bass solo that is part of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals symphony.

We also want to ensure an intimate setting. So we cap attendance at ten families, with all family members welcome – including siblings who are not on the autism spectrum.

On the day of the concert, we give the children flowing scarves and invite them to move and dance in an open area of the room. The performances conclude with an instrument “petting zoo,” as the musicians invite our children to touch and play their instruments.

As you might imagine, our families love the experience. In our feedback surveys, everyone expresses interest in attending another autism-friendly concert at our center. And the vast majority – nearly 90 percent – say that the experience gave them new confidence to attend a family concert at the Pacific Symphony’s home performance space.

One parent told me, “I think because the concert at the Center for Autism was so intimate, so personal, [our daughter] got more out of it. It was a good transition to try Segerstrom Concert Hall, because now we thought ‘okay, we can do this.’”

“I felt that they enjoyed the balance of music and talking,” violinist Marla Joy Weisshaar told us. “The visuals and scarves really helped direct them to listen to the music and understand it better. I felt that the families were engaged from start to finish in each concert so far.”

We hope our program can serve as a successful model. We’re also encouraged to see other Autism Treatment Network centers partner with groups in their communities to create similar autism-friendly performances across North America.

Editor’s note: Here are some more model autism-inclusive performance programs being pioneered by our ATN centers:

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

* Your ATN@Work: An Autism-Friendly Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum

* Your ATN@Work in Columbus: Autism and Shakespeare

* Your ATN@Work: The Arts + Autism = Improv Opera

Also check out these autism-friendly performance projects supported by Autism Speaks community grants:

* Red Kite by the Sea

* Face Place Theater Project

* Azure Music performance and education events

* Actors for Autism

* 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.