A Master of Arts in Theatre Education student has turned her thesis project into a way to help families of children with autism.
Diana Young, MA ’13, helped develop a performance of Pippi Longstocking that is altered to accommodate children on the autism spectrum. The show will take place Saturday, April 27, at the Wheelock Family Theatre, on the campus of Wheelock College, in Boston.
“The goal is for these families to come to a show and feel like they’re in an environment that understands them,” Young said. “It’s hard for families to take their kids to a live performance of any kind because oftentimes there are so many sensory stimuli going on.”
Young, who wrote a blog entry about the performance, worked with Emerson’s Performing Arts and Communication Sciences and Disorders departments to help develop the show for Wheelock. The director is Wendy Lement, MA '88, who is making her directing debut. The assistant producer is Shelley Bolman '95.
“One of the problems for families of kids on the autism spectrum is having to be sidelined,” said Rhiannon Luyster, assistant professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, who is a developmental psychologist specializing in children with autism. “This is a step in the right direction. It allows families to become more visible, integrate into the community, and have a more positive experience with their kids.”
Young was on a team that developed the autism-friendly show, which includes toning down aspects that can be difficult for children with sensory issues.
“We want to create an environment where it’s OK for kids to talk or yell or laugh loudly during the show, or get up and move around if they need to, without any detriment or misunderstanding.”
“People who don’t know much about autism can very easily think a kid is just acting out,” she said. “We want to create an environment where it’s OK for kids to talk or yell or laugh loudly during the show, or get up and move around if they need to, without any detriment or misunderstanding.”
Young’s individual contributions include designing what is called a “social story”—a guidebook for children that uses pictures and descriptions to prepare them for the show.
“A big thing for kids with autism is scheduling, preparation, and cues,” Young said.
The guidebook will explain how to interact with ushers, where to sit, and answers other basic questions children might have.
It will say something like, “Someone’s going to offer you a program. You can take the program if you want to, but you don’t have to,” Young said. “Or, ‘You’re going to get tickets and someone will show us where to sit. This isn’t a choice. You have to sit there.’”
Because only a handful of theaters have staged autism-friendly plays, Young hopes her social story will be used as a guide.
“There are a lot of places around the country starting to do this, but it’s still kind of new,” she said.
“It’s really important to continue to educate all families that kids on the autism spectrum deal with a host of challenges,” Luyster said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. But I think this is a wonderful thing.”