Recently, I got maybe ten different emails from people about the "autism-friendly" performance of The Lion King in New York City, which took place earlier this month. The Lion King geniuses and a panel of autism experts—including ones from Autism Speaks—joined together to make the show appeal to kids with autism, featuring softened volumes, dimmed lighting and quiet areas.
The performance is part of a new program by the Theatre Development Fund called the Autism Theatre Initiative, geared toward making performances accessible to kids and adults on the autism spectrum. Tickets were also offered at reasonable prices, as compared to the usual mortgage-payment-level fees.
I went ahead and signed up to hear more about future autism-friendly performances. The online form said "Please check the ages of the theatregoers on the autism spectrum with whom you'd like to attend." I clicked on Max's age group. I felt weird; he has cerebral palsy, not autism.
I am sure there was no person standing at the door of the Lion King performance demanding to see medical records. Max could have passed. As if!!! I'd never crash something like that. But I hope that someday, the program could be expanded to kids with other kinds of special needs. Children like Max, whose brain damage makes him sensitive to noise. Kids who have Sensory Integration Disorder, ADHD, PDD-NOS.
The show was a success. It sold out, and got good coverage in the press—as it deserved. It is absolutely, positively, unbelievably amazing that a big-deal show on Broadway show figured out ways to accommodate kids with autism. Anytime something like this happens, it opens doors for other kids with special needs. Which is why I hope future performances are more inviting to kids with other kinds of special needs.
Mind you, I am not saying I envy children with autism, or that kids with autism (or their parents) have it easy.
This is not a disability compare-a-thon.
That said, I understand that there are many children out there with autism. About 1 in every 100 children has an autism spectrum disorder, the most recent government studies say; 1 in every 303 children has cerebral palsy, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism has got its act together; it has powerful organizations behind it and renowned advocates like Temple Grandin. CP, not so much.
As a parent of a child with a disability that is not autism, I can't help but wish for attention like that for his special needs. I wonder if parents of kids with other diagnoses feel the same. "Autism is the new black!" a friend joked when we discussed the Lion King performance. She has a child with Asperger's, and feels it's "acceptable" to say her daughter has that—but her child also has mental illness, and if she mentions that to people, she said, "We're like lepers." She considers it normal to be both awed and wistful about the attention autism has been getting. As she said, "It reminds me of the debate about how much attention is focused on breast cancer versus other cancers. Again, it's not a competition—they're all good causes—but when you are living one of them, it's easy to envy the other."
It's easy to feel included, too. One playhouse in New Jersey recently offered a "sensory-friendly" performance for children, after being approached by two moms of kids with autism; it was open to all kids with developmental disabilities. AMC Theatres, in partnership with The Autism Society, have regular screenings also billed as "sensory-friendly" in theaters around the country. Oh, yes: Perhaps I should get off my blogging butt and make things happen in my neck of the woods. Advances for our kids rarely happen without advocacy, and it often starts with parents. But maybe, just maybe, The Lion King could bill the next performance for kids with special needs as "sensory friendly."
I've had inclusion on my mind in recent months; I want to get Max involved in activities with so-called "typical" kids, one reason we are trying Cub Scouts. But I think inclusion should apply within the special needs community as well. I have a child with cerebral palsy. You have a child with autism. Let's welcome them all to enjoy the pleasures life has to offer, oh Lion King.