Shannon Stauff will take her 7-year-old son, Wyatt, to see “The Lion King” Saturday at the Orpheum in Minneapolis.
That hardly seems remarkable as Twin Cities families flock to the biggest blockbuster in theater history. But for the Stauffs, it’s a momentous event.
Wyatt has autism. He’s sensitive to loud noises and bright lights, so family outings are a challenge.
“Dinner or Target? Forget those,” said Stauff. “He would have a meltdown.”
A special “sensory-friendly” staging Saturday of the Disney musical gives her St. Paul family of four the chance to finally take in a Broadway tour.
That show reflects an array of new steps by arts organizations to welcome patrons on the autism spectrum — a group that has surged nationally in recent years. In the Twin Cities, Stages Theatre and Children’s Theatre Company offer sensory-friendly presentations. “Lion King” is the first Broadway production to try it.
“We know a show can be a scary, loud thing to someone on the spectrum,” said Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions. “Audiences come in many different forms, and we’re always trying to find new ways of making theater as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.”
Simba will still ascend Pride Rock on Saturday. Balletic gazelles will dance gracefully on the plains. The shady hyenas will snort and crack wise.
But effects such as strobe lights and shattering sounds will be modulated. House lights in the auditorium will remain partially up so audience members can see one another. The customary rules of behavior are relaxed, too. It’s OK for viewers to talk back to performers or suddenly erupt.
Wyatt may get up in mid-performance, if he wishes, and go out to the lobby, where trained autism specialists and volunteers are ready to help if a child becomes overwhelmed and needs space to calm down.
It will be a welcome break for families like the Stauffs, including husband Ryan and older son Sullivan, 8. Wyatt’s unpredictable reaction to stimuli keeps his parents on edge and rules out activities that for other families might seem routine.
Noise and lights can act as triggers that make him lash out verbally or physically, or cause him to “stim” — engage in self-stimulating behavior such as rocking or verbal repetition to regain his emotional balance.
Autism rates are on the rise nationally. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with autism, up from 1 in 88 just four years earlier. In Minnesota, more than 70,000 people have been diagnosed on the spectrum, according to Ellie Wilson of the Autism Society of Minnesota, which partnered with Disney and the Hennepin Theatre Trust for Saturday’s show.
Disney pioneered the practice on Broadway five years ago and has offered sensory-friendly performances in select cities across the country.
“Everywhere we’ve gone, we have multigenerational families enjoying themselves in a safe environment,” said production stage manager Matthew Shiner, whose adult son is on the spectrum. “Oftentimes, anything new and big can be scary. But we make it safe and personal, so that families can relax a little and not have to work to edit the experience for their children.”
These performances borrow lessons learned from the movie world, which has been a leader in the movement. AMC cinemas — including the Rosedale and Eden Prairie theaters in the Twin Cities — have offered regular sensory-friendly screenings since 2007.
Hopkins-based Stages Theatre started its sensory-friendly program in 2013. It now offers 10 performances a year, including the musical “Annie Jr.” next Saturday. Children’s Theatre followed suit in 2014 and presents about five shows a year.
At Stages, where capacity is normally 700, the audience is capped at 100 to give patrons buffer seats if they desire.
“We call it a shush-free performance,” said James Lekatz, access specialist at Stages.
Youngsters with autism are often visually oriented, he noted, so theater can help teach social behavior. The company also offers classes for children on the spectrum. A three-week session just ended, with 11 students ages 8 to 16.
“The best part of the class was doing voices and making new friends,” said Vivienne Wahlstrom, 14, who showed off her prowess by imitating Muppet stars Bert and Ernie.
Lekatz said that while “students might not have the skills to socialize, studying scenes or playing games gives them opportunities to practice starting conversations.”
The potential of the arts to aid people with autism is on display in a new documentary, “Life, Animated,” that just opened at the Edina Cinema. It’s about a severely afflicted boy whose fascination with Disney movies — including “The Lion King” — provided a framework to communicate and connect with family and, eventually, the world at large.
Prepping theatergoers who have autism is like taking someone afraid of flying to see what an airplane is like. For “The Lion King,” ticket holders were invited to the Orpheum on a special night to “meet their seats.” They also received image-heavy packages explaining the story.
Children’s Theatre and Stages also e-mail descriptive packages of their shows. “They come in knowing what to expect,” said Deborah Girdwood, director of access and inclusion at CTC.
As for the actors, Girdwood said they enjoy the sensory-friendly performances because the audience is “so honest and has so much fun.”
They also provide a much-needed break for families. Disney’s Schumacher tells a story about a mother and son who attended a sensory-friendly “Lion King” on Broadway.
“This kid ran away from his mother in the lobby, ran into another mother and knocked her on her keister,” Schumacher recalled. “The kid’s mother was mortified. But as she was helping up the lady, the other mother told her, ‘Today is the day you don’t have to apologize for your children.’ ”
Stauff understands that sentiment well. She recalls trying to see a movie at the Science Museum of Minnesota with visiting family members when Wyatt had a meltdown.
“I took him outside, holding him and pacing around the perimeter,” she said. “I couldn’t leave because my family was inside, and I couldn’t go back in because he was so upset. It’s exhausting and makes you not want to do anything.”
Saturday will be different.
“He’ll get to have a regular experience, seeing one of the greatest shows of all time,” she said. “And I’ll get to take it in, too, without stress and worry.”