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

"The Lion King" to identify elements of the production where light and sound effects might require changes.

"Now I want to emphasize, this was the same 'Lion King,'" stressed Carling. "We did not want to present a watered-down version of the show. But Disney has been a natural partner with us in the past in helping to make their shows accessible, and they were totally willing to make some adjustments, like bringing down the sound of a steam blast, lowering the music at points, and eliminating strobe lights."

Many of the biggest accommodations were made off-stage, as dozens of hired "autism educators" -- outfitted in bright yellow shirts -- roamed the theater before, during and after the show, offering up relaxation techniques and a hand to hold. An array of squeeze-balls and toys were also on hand to help the mostly 7- to 12-year-old audience stay relaxed and engaged, while audience members in need of a more complete sensory break could move to a colorful part of the lobby designated as a "quiet zone."

"We found that 81 percent of our audience said this was the first Broadway show they had ever attended as a family," noted Carling. "So clearly this is a tremendously underserved community."

Sweeney agreed. "I have to say that the whole thing was just electric," she said. "Of course it was very noisy, and kids were jumping out of their seats. And stimming. And screaming. But it was never confusing. It was unbelievably well-organized. And the cast didn't miss a beat."

"Honestly, we didn't actually know what to expect," admitted "Lion King" cast member Ben Jeffrey, who plays the supporting lead role of Pumbaa, the warthog. "There was a pretty constant amount of noise -- sort of a sensory overload for everyone. But you really got feedback during the performance. You could see that the music, in particular, seemed to have a very strong effect. You could actually hear the hush coming over the house when it started to play," he said.

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