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Leo Capella explains why relaxed performances are a cultural innovation that should run and run

I am an autistic film fan who gets nervous in the centre of a packed cinema. And I’m a theatre goer who fears disturbing the actors when watching a performance, which is infuriating as there are a lot of good plays that I’d like to go and see. 

In many ways though, I’m fortunate in that I’m able to go and see any performances at all. Many autistic people find the crowds, noise and bright lights to be just too much. In the National Autistic Society’s Too Much Information report (2016), 28 per cent of autistic people and their families said they have been asked to leave a public space or venue, including theatres, for reasons associated with their autism. This is, in fact, why relaxed performances came about in the first place.

What is a relaxed performance?

A relaxed performance is an adapted version of a play, film or any type of show. Because of the particular challenges autistic people can face, the changes are focused on: 

  • ensuring the experience is predictable, to reduce anxiety and help people prepare for and manage the experience
  • reducing potential sensory overload
  • being ready to support people if they do become overwhelmed. 

Small changes are made to create a more relaxed environment to help ensure people on the autism spectrum – and people affected by other disabilities and conditions – aren’t overwhelmed and can be themselves without feeling judged by others. 

What goes into making a relaxed performance?

Although there are general principles which apply to all relaxed performances, the adjustments will be tailored to each individual show.

Special effects can be changed; for example, lighting might be toned down and strobe lighting removed altogether. The volume of sound effects, particularly unexpected ones like a giant bang (or even a giant burp in Matilda The Musical), might be reduced or the sounds might even be replaced by a member of the production explaining to the audience what is happening. Sometimes the script or the way actors act out a certain scene is changed, if there are concerns it could trigger an issue for an autistic audience member. 

In plays, the actors (including child actors) are trained, along with front-of-house staff and crew, on what to expect and when someone might need assistance. This helps them to understand their autistic audience and look forward to taking part in the production. 

These changes are normally determined by an autism access specialist like me, after we’ve reviewed the non-relaxed performances and made recommendations. We also look at the theatre or performance venue itself.

Supporting audiences

It isn’t just what happens on stage that’s important. The audience must be able to access visual guides which explain what is going to happen before and during the performance, what the rules are and what special effects they should be aware of.

Adaptations are often also made to the theatre environment itself. Organisers will need to consider any sensory challenges that the building might create for autistic visitors, such as tight passageways or very brightly lit hallways. It’s important that there are designated quiet areas or places for autistic people and families to retreat to if they get too overwhelmed. Auditorium back lights may also be left on so that the audience isn’t entirely in the dark.  

The traditional rules that apply to a performance are also relaxed, so people can react to the performance while it is happening and live it out while it’s happening rather than, for example, waiting until the end of a scene to clap. This means that actors often enjoy an increased level of participation from the audience. Members of the audience can also use their own media devices to relax themselves.

At many relaxed performances (particularly plays and concerts) there are volunteers who help people feel comfortable and welcome and who can support and guide theatre staff on issues relating to autism.

In my experience, performance organisers and venues are keen to get feedback from audiences and families about the relaxed events they put on, and how they might be able to improve the experience for autistic people.

Why do these adjustments matter?

Relaxed performances allow autistic children, young people and adults to experience the arts like their non-autistic peers. Some autistic people also use them as vital stepping stones towards moving on to attending non-relaxed performances.  

I’ve seen first hand how relieved families are to have a few hours where they are not going to be judged for their or their family member’s autism. The Too Much Information report suggests that 79 per cent of autistic people and 70 per cent of families feel socially isolated, so this is clearly a huge issue.

It’s important to remember that a relaxed performance isn’t just about one night. The training that all staff receive gives them an insight into autism which can help their day-to-day work at non relaxed performances – which some autistic people will of course also attend.

Everyone benefits from relaxed performances, which is why they need to be more widespread. They are not just there to enable autistic people and their families to experience performances; they are a vital avenue for combatting loneliness and isolation, by allowing people to breathe a little easier in an environment that suits them.

About the author

Leo Capella is the Autism Access Specialist, and relaxed performances lead, at the charity the National Autistic Society.

 autism.org.uk

 @autism

 @NationalAutisticSociety

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