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

erbal. He will self-talk. Repetitively speak. And when we're in public, people who don't understand the situation will think he's just misbehaving."

All of this means that Sweeney, like most parents of children with autism, had learned to avoid the traditional theater. She recalled an incident that occurred at another Broadway production she brought Dusty to five years ago, which ended in mother and son being asked by staff to leave the venue. Dusty was visibly upset, said Sweeney, who called the moment "one of the lowest points in my life."

So, "just like we have built wheelchair ramps to accommodate people with physical disabilities, we need to provide accommodations for people with autism so they can be part of our community and share in the activities that other people enjoy," Dawson reasoned.

October's autism-friendly performance of "The Lion King" was the brainchild of the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), the nation's largest nonprofit art services organization, and it marked the launch of its "Autism Theatre Initiative."

"We have many different programs that focus on reaching out and making theater available to audiences with a range of physical disabilities," noted Lisa Carling, director of TDF's Accessibility Programs. "Special Ed teachers we've worked with in the past -- to provide accessible performances for students who are deaf or have vision issues -- asked us what we could do for students on the autism spectrum," Carling explained.

"There wasn't really a way that we could see to integrate a typical Broadway house [audience] with this kind of audience," Carling stressed. "It wouldn't have served the purpose of creating an accepting environment where everyone could just be themselves without being judged. So we decided that the best thing to do was simply buy out the entire house [for an autism-spectrum audience]."

And so they did, partnering up with Disney, which invited a panel of four autism experts to check out
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