Autism-friendly performances are an art – Nick Ward
Last month I had the pleasure of attending my first autism-friendly performance. I was aware that all front-of-house staff had taken part in autism training, quiet spaces were pointed out as I entered the theatre, and the cast introduced themselves before the show began. But nothing about the production felt unusual, toned down or in any way lacking. I was utterly engrossed in the story.
It wasn’t until the interval that my colleague, Craig, told me about the small but significant adaptations he had suggested after watching rehearsals, and which the director and cast had happily taken on board in order to ensure the show could be enjoyed by an autistic audience.
Craig is the National Autistic Society Scotland’s autism-friendly coordinator. He works with a wide variety of organisations to help them understand autism and make changes to the way they operate in order to be more accessible to autistic people. In the last month, he has supported The Lyceum, the National Theatre of Scotland and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
The autism-friendly performance I was lucky enough to attend was the critically acclaimed Local Hero, playing at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre.
After the show, a couple wrote to The Lyceum to say how much they enjoyed Local Hero and that they had simply not felt able to attend the theatre before. Knowing that the performance was autism-friendly made them feel comfortable and confident that they could relax and enjoy themselves.
Some of the adaptations – which I didn’t notice but would have made a huge difference to the autistic people in the audience – were the removal of a disco ball lighting effect during a party scene, lighter foot stamping during dance numbers, and a softer sound effect when a helicopter appeared onstage.
Ben Jeffries, director of communications and customer services at the Lyceum, told me that the company is passionately committed to the idea of theatre being for everyone. They are always looking for ways to support this: through pricing, making the venue and publicity accessible, and tailoring performances for those with sensory sensitivities.
They see offering autism-friendly shows as a natural extension of the work they have done to welcome deaf, hard of hearing and visually impaired audiences through their BSL, captioned and audio described performances.
The National Autistic Society Scotland has previously supported The Lyceum to put on autism-friendly Christmas shows for children and their families. Local Hero is the first show it has offered for autistic adults, and I’m so pleased it made the decision to do so.
In recent years we have seen autism friendly events popping up everywhere, from theatres to trampoline parks to zoos. I’m proud to say that our charity has been at the forefront of the movement, launching our Autism Friendly Award in 2016 to recognise the organisations that do it really well. In Scotland, the award is held by organisations like the Glasgow Film Theatre, Rangers and Aberdeen football clubs, and Edinburgh Airport.
Research conducted by our charity has revealed that 66 per cent of autistic people in Scotland feel socially isolated and 44 per cent sometimes don’t go out because they are worried about how others will react to their autism.
The autism-friendly movement plays an important role in tackling this issue, but it’s not yet going far enough. Most events are for children and young people. Autism is a lifelong condition, and the needs of autistic adults must also be taken into consideration as our society strives to become more accessible.
I have good news for those interested in the arts: the Lyceum has committed to offering more relaxed performances, and the National Theatre of Scotland has set itself the incredible challenge of making every production it stages this year autism-friendly. This year, the National Autistic Society Scotland hopes to engage with sports facilities, restaurants, music venues and more to ensure that autistic adults can take part in the activities that interest them and have fun in a welcoming environment.
To find out more, please email [email protected]
Nick Ward, director of the National Autistic Society Scotland