Nineteen-year-old Stephanie Unger sat hunched over a table in the Walker Art Center basement, eagerly collaging flowers into a sky. It was Sunday morning, and she and her mom, Anna, had arrived in Minneapolis the night before from Jordan aboard the Queen of the Mississippi riverboat.
In between collaging, she rocked back and forth — but she wasn't in a rocking chair. With a giant smile on her face, Unger was exhibiting a type of self-stimulating behavior of a kid on the autism spectrum.
Unger was enjoying the Walker's monthly Sensory Friendly Sunday, launched in May for kids with autism. The idea came to Julia Anderson, the Walker's family and access programs coordinator, when she told a friend whose child is on the spectrum that they should come to the Walker's family day.
"She looked at me like: 'We can't come to Free First Saturday, that would be so overwhelming for him.' "
Anderson is one of many managers at Twin Cities cultural institutions who have realized the need for a sensory-friendly day or event. According to University of Minnesota data released in April, 2.4 percent of 8-year-olds in Hennepin and Ramsey counties were identified with autism spectrum disorder. Boys were 4.6 times more likely than girls.
The Minnesota Orchestra, which has offered sensory-friendly music events since 2013, will perform its first-ever full orchestra concert for people on the spectrum July 14. Children's Theatre Company and Stages Theatre both offer sensory-friendly presentations. And the Minneapolis Institute of Art has developed programming for visitors with autism.
The Walker's next event is July 8, funded by a $37,000 Minnesota State Arts Board grant. Although the grant runs out in October, Anderson plans to keep the program going.
"It is more about moderating the environment — making sure front-line staff and volunteers are trained, familiar with autism, and have this ethos of welcoming and access," said Anderson.
It's true: Guards were friendlier than usual during last month's event. Lights in the main lobby were dimmed. Quiet spaces were created there and in the galleries. Noise-canceling headphones and fidget toys were on a table for people to grab. Sensory cubes were placed midway through the galleries for visitors to climb inside if they felt overwhelmed. There were fewer people than usual — the registration list is capped at 150 to keep things manageable.
And downstairs, folks like Stephanie and her family collaged and celebrated.
Ryan Mohs' 8-year-old daughter, Elaria, gazed at a row of photographs, a pair of headphones clamped to her ears. She is mostly nonverbal. Before they visited, they had a conversation about how there weren't going to be a lot of people there.
"If there are too many people, the sounds can be too much and all coming at once," Mohs said. "It is like turning your headphones up to 100. It can be scary."
Social element is crucial
Some kids on the spectrum need rigid scheduling and an idea of what they'll encounter, so the Walker and the Art Institute created "social narratives" — documents describing the space visitors will enter.
The Walker's begins with a picture of the building's exterior and this text: "We're visiting the Walker Art Center for Sensory Friendly Sunday. The Walker is a museum filled with art of the last 100 years."
Ellie Wilson, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM), explained that "social inclusion" is an important piece for disability advocates: "It's about embracing that the accommodation is not just physical, but is also social/emotional."
No two autism spectrum cases are the same, and there's a misconception that sensory-friendly just means "dimming the lights." But some kids on the spectrum love bright lights and noises.
The Art Institute has created social narratives for various visitors. Its staff contacted the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for tips, and had AuSM review the material. It also created a guide to its sensory-friendly spaces. "We walked around the museum and put together a list of what we hope will be helpful for visitors," such as rooms with natural light, said Amanda Lesnikowski, student and teacher learning coordinator.
The institute has partnered with AuSM to produce a weeklong morning day camp called AuSM Artists, which runs July 23-27, bringing kids together to learn social skills, make art and see works in the museum.
Letting people be who they are
Next Saturday's Minnesota Orchestra concert starts with Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," which is heavy on percussion. Nothing about the orchestra changes — it's the environment that is different.
"We'll reserve rows for free movement," said education and community engagement director Jessica Leibfried. "The conductor will invite people from the stage: 'If you want to be further away from the orchestra, feel free to go to rows in the back.' ... We want to let people be who they are and react to the music."
There will be two quiet spaces — one that will show the concert on TV monitors, another that's digital-free. They will have beanbags to sit on, and things to color and play with. This will be a space for calming down, as is typical of sensory-friendly events. There will also be an hour of activities preceding the concert, and a social map as well.
An audience of 900 is expected for the 55-minute concert — but if any change their mind, that's also OK. If someone is having a bad day, they can bank tickets for the future.
"The chance of being able to participate at Walker, MIA and the Minnesota Orchestra — some believe those shouldn't be privileges, but accessible opportunities in a diverse city such as Minneapolis and St. Paul," said AuSM's Wilson. "We certainly can't afford for people with disabilities to be an afterthought. Learning to make these events [sensory-friendly] shifts our spaces to celebrate the inclusion of all people all of the time."