Artistic licence for children with autism

Theatres and cinemas have responded to the call for special screenings and relaxed performances

Tue, Jul 1, 2014, 01:00

‘It can be difficult to be in a public place when you have a loved one with autism,” says Jennefer Cullinan, social media officer with Irish Autism Action. “People with autism are easily overwhelmed by outside stimuli, such as bright lights and crowds, and can often cope for only a short time before getting upset and having a meltdown.”

Cullinan, who is the mother of a child with autism, has first-hand experience of how difficult such a scenario can be. “Autism is an invisible disability,” she says, “and people can be very quick to judge you if your child is having a meltdown, as we call it, because to an outsider it just looks like a tantrum. When the nervous system is overwhelmed, an autistic child might react by lying on the floor or screaming. The perception is that you just have a naughty child; but the child has no control over it.”

In her professional role and as a parent, Cullinan has been involved in creating opportunities for families with autism to participate in artistic experiences that might be difficult for them in their usual context. A variety of arts organisations and venues have responded to this expressed need by organising special screenings or relaxed performances that take into account the needs of an autistic audience.

Relaxed screening

Vue Cinema at Liffey Valley has been scheduling relaxed screenings for several years. According to Steven Woodruffe, the venue manager, “An ordinary showing would be very overwhelming for a person with autism. It is a dark, loud, crowded environment.” Following the model set by the Vue central office in the UK, during the relaxed performances, which are held once a month, and weekly during the summer, the cinema’s house lights remain up for the duration, the sound levels are lowered, and the venue is sold to only 75 per cent capacity. Exit doors are also kept open, so the audience can come and go as they need. Crucially, there are no ads, as waiting can be particularly hard for people with autism.

The films are primarily aimed at an under-12 audience, but a recent live streaming of the National Theatre Live’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a stage adaptation of Mark Hadron’s bestseller about a 15-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, was such a success that it was screened twice.

Meanwhile, the Ark cultural centre for children in Dublin has provided autism-friendly performances in its varied theatre programme since 2012. Maria Fleming, the Ark’s theatre programmer, says theatre poses a particular set of potential stressors for the autistic child.

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