‘It can open up their world’: Maine State Music Theater brings back sensory performances

Performers show viewers how the dragon prop works in a sensory performance of Sleeping Beauty. Courtesy of Maine State Music Theater

Maine State Music Theater artistic director Curt Dale Clark said he first recognized the need for sensory performances about seven years ago after an audience member had difficulty attending. a particularly heavy take on the effects of Les Miserables.

“When the gunshots went off, the kid couldn’t handle it and freaked out,” Clark said. “The loud noises, the bright lights and the special effects, the thunderclap and stuff like that, it was too much for him, it was sensory overload for the kid.”

For people with autism, hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, touch, taste, and lights can be a barrier to interacting with the world around them. This can include live theater, where the influx of sensations that accompanies a performance can be overwhelming.

After Clark did some research, the theater launched the first series of sensory shows in 2016. Although it took time off last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater will continue the tradition this year by offering three shows: “Beauty and the Beast”. “, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Shrek, Jr.”

The performances allow the audience to meet the actors in costume and out of costume, as well as adjusted intensity of volume, lighting and special effects.

“By the time we finished the very first time, the whole cast was in tears, I was in tears, it was so beautiful,” Clark said. “We’ve been doing it ever since.”

According to the parents surveyed, children on the spectrum react in a variety of ways to excessive stimuli, whether it’s nervousness, unexpected leaks, verbal outburst, excessive happiness, or physical and aggressive reactions.

For parents, these reactions can often result in negative looks, comments, and general judgment, contributing to a sense of stigma that makes exploring the world isolating, difficult, and uncomfortable for both parent and child. However, what might be judged by the public as an acting or unruly child is usually the result of overstimulation for people with autism or similar conditions.

“In a word, it’s heartbreaking,” said Windsor resident Malarie Clark (no relation to Curt Dale Clark), whose five-year-old son Dylan has autism, is non-verbal and uses an electronic device to communicate. . “I don’t think that judgment comes from a negative place, I think it’s just awareness and acceptance of the situation.”

Activities that most take for granted, such as going to school, the grocery store, the movies, the water park, or the cafeteria, become intimidating and anxiety-provoking for people with sensory sensitivities.

According to Autism Society of Maine Executive Director Cathy Dionne, sensory activities, like performances at the Maine State Music Theater, are an essential tool for engaging and helping people with autism feel comfortable.

“They are beyond valuable,” Dionne said, noting that other examples in Maine include sensory events at restaurants, bowling alleys, meet-and-greet Santas and water parks.

Dionne estimated there were probably more than 10,000 people with autism in Maine. According to a study published in 2020 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 5.4 million – or 2.2% of adults – in the United States have autism spectrum disorders.

Visual by Nina Mahaleris for The Times Record.

“We are now in a place where people know about autism,” Dionne said. “But they’re just starting to realize how affected individuals are in certain arenas, whether it’s in the movies, whether it’s in the cafeteria.”

Brunswick resident Shannon Landry said her son, Ethan, was born premature and suffered three strokes at birth. Her son, now 17, has autism.

Landry said she attended a handful of sensory activities with her son, including a Maine State Music Theater “Shrek” performance, which she considered a great experience for him.

“It can open up their world,” Landry said. “The fact that these types of activities are offered and families can do it together and enjoy being together and having an experience, it’s amazing.”

Landry added that of all the sensory events she attended in Maine, most were good.

“You can end up with people there and there’s a stigma,” Landry said of what can be learned from the Sensory Friends events. “They don’t understand it’s a special screening.”

Hartland resident Crystal Davis said four of her sons have ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, along with other diagnoses. She said they’ve been to museums, zoos and sensory movies across the state, though most of the events aren’t local to her area, which can make attendance difficult.

“More often than not, they’re in southern Maine traveling with four kids for two and a half hours for an event, and then spending hours there just isn’t an option for us,” Davis said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges.”

Davis said the important elements for a successful sensory event are that the staff is trained and that it is closed to the public so that if one of the children runs away, it is easier to find them.

“It’s very important that people around us can understand and grow with us,” Davis said. “It kind of helps to know that other parents understand why their child is like that – they’re not judging us.”

Davis added that, specifically for his 12-year-old son, the events give him the opportunity to see that there are other kids like him around. “It definitely makes them more comfortable,” Davis said.

Malarie Clark said that while she too would like to see more sensory events in her area, there are always concerns about stigma and how sensory the event will be.

“We haven’t had any performances yet,” Malarie Clark said. “There’s a fear of going to something like that and it’s not as sensory as it needs to be and then of course there’s this stigma of your kid having a blast or struggling.”

Malarie Clark said her son has a processing delay, which means it sometimes takes him around 30 seconds or more to respond. “In a situation that doesn’t allow for that time to be processed in a sensory environment, it could be overlooked,” she said, citing an example where he couldn’t get a cookie at school due to ‘a late reply.

Malarie Clark added that the only event she attended with her son was a sensory Santa in 2019, stressing that there were no time limits, low stimuli and no pressure.

“He has to be himself and enjoy the day,” Malarie Clark said. “It was a fantastic environment for him and our family. I wish we had more in the area.

Performances at the Maine State Music Theater are supported by grants from the Maine Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Anna-Maria Moggio Foundation, and the Onion Foundation.

The performances are free and will take place on August 5 and 17 and October 9. Visit msmt.org for details and to register.

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