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Broadway Strikes an Autism-Friendly Chord
Date:12/9/2011

By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Dec. 9 (HealthDay News) -- For most Americans, attending the theater is just one more form of entertainment. But for Katie Sweeney and her family, a recent trip to Broadway was true cause for celebration.

"It was absolute redemption," said Sweeney, recalling the afternoon in October when she, her husband Michael, 16-year-old son Dylan, and 14-year-old son Dusty -- who has autism -- caught a unique performance of "The Lion King."

"It was a special, special moment," she said, because the performance was the first-ever staging of a Broadway musical specially adapted for an audience of people with autism.

Watching Dusty take in the show in an environment that understood his needs was "among the highlights of my life," said Sweeney.

According to organizers, the performance in the 1,600-seat theater had quickly sold out (with another 1,000 families on a waiting list for tickets), pointing to a real need for accessible theater for the autism-spectrum community.

That's because more typical performances aren't suited to people with autism, explained Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

First of all, she said, people with autism often struggle with a host of acute "sensory sensitivities," turning large crowds, bright lights and loud sounds into big stressors. "Unfortunately, this often limits the kinds of experiences that they can share with their families," she said. The added stimuli of the theater can also exacerbate "stimming" behaviors -- repetitive fidgeting or calling out that can interfere with the experience of other theatergoers.

"My son Dusty is lower-function autistic," said Sweeney. "He can spell and he can read, he can point to things and label them, he can express very basic needs. But when communicating he's pretty much nonverbal."

Dusty also engages in stimming, she said, "which can be very v
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Broadway Strikes an Autism-Friendly Chord
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