Bright lights and colorful costumes can be an engaging way to let children’s imaginations run wild as they watch theatrical performances. But these elements can also overwhelm children with sensory-processing disorders. Attractions throughout the DMV have created ways to ensure every child can enjoy the creative freedom and expression that come from the arts.
Sensory-friendly performing arts
Imagination Stage in Bethesda offers sensory-friendly theater classes and performances for children in preschool through 12th grade. The inclusion team emphasizes that success looks different for every student. Whether it’s delivering a line or watching their peers, the team ensures that children enjoy themselves in an environment that’s comfortable for them.
“Children who are working on social skills or interacting with their peers have a space where the environment is fun,” says Scott Turner, access and inclusion manager for Imagination Stage. “It’s not like school where things are very intense or there’s a specific goal.”
Turner’s team also sends children and their parents a pre-visit “social story” packet that reads like a storybook. The
material provides step-by-step illustrations that detail the process of going to the venue, purchasing the ticket and watching the performance, plus all the important details in between. The packet also includes the plot points of the performance so that children can follow along easier.
Turner adds that having neurodiverse students participate helps them to teach other kids important social skills.
“Empathy is perhaps the biggest thing,” he says. “For some of our students, this might be their first time getting a chance to interact or learn alongside others with a disability. They kind of see a different perspective. This is true for students with disabilities as well,” he says.
At Strathmore, another performing arts venue in Bethesda, families of children with sensory-processing disorders also receive a pre-visit packet to help them explore sensory-friendly events with their children.
All of its family shows operate in a “no-shush” environment where attendees are encouraged to laugh out loud, move throughout the venue and perform other nontypical actions.
“We’re not expecting a typical ‘sit down and be quiet’ concert behavior from these family shows,” says Lauren Campbell, vice president of education and community engagement.
Strathmore holds an hour-long training to ensure its performers and staff are properly equipped for sensory-friendly specific performances. The hosts and artists also make sure that their performances don’t include any overwhelming noises or lights.
“Many public spaces are extremely unwelcoming for children and adults,” Campbell says. “It’s critically important that we take this overwhelming encouragement and turn it into opening up as many of these spaces that we possibly can.”
Arts experiences for all ages and abilities
The nonprofit VisArts in Rockville offers visual arts classes, camps and other programs for all age groups and experience levels. Students can learn from various media styles such as ceramics, photography and glass art.
“One of our main goals is to make sure that every class here is accessible to everyone,” says Emily Fucello, assistant educational director for VisArts.
VisArts has a “no right or wrong way to create or learn” philosophy. Staff members are trained to work with differences in abilities and learning styles, and they’re equipped with materials to complete various projects with their students.
“Every child learns a different way and will create art a different way. Our instructors have been working with children for a long time and understand that each one has a different set of needs,” Fucello says.
Small class sizes allow VisArts instructors to give one-on-one personalized assistance. “On all of our class offerings, we give people a way to request accommodations for students as needed,” Fucello says. “That kind of open communication that we have with the parents is really important and helps us give the children the best experience possible.”