Are autism-friendly venues really autism friendly?

Christmas 2011 was the last time I went to the theatre.  I had taken my daughter to see Jack and the Beanstalk at our local theatre, a small and friendly place that I thought my daughter would cope with.  Such was my hope that she would manage it, I had even dared to dream of visiting London and seeing one of the big shows.  My dream was a tad ambitious however because my daughter really struggled with our trip to this little provincial theatre.

Her anxiety rocketed and she became difficult to manage but fortunately we were able to distract her with music from her ipod but even with that my daughter remained solemn and disengaged throughout the whole show.  I realised that I had made a big error in taking her and that I had made an even bigger error assuming that because she has a milder form of autism that she would cope with going to the theatre.  I felt terrible that  I dragged her through such an ordeal and I vowed I would not repeat that experience again unless she expressed a real desire to  go.  Not surprisingly she hasn’t shown any interest since and like her brother prefers to stay at home.

But now efforts are being made to make the cinema and theatre more accessible for autistic people.  Autism-friendly film screenings and relaxed performances of  theatre productions promise to be sensory sensitive and tolerant towards those with autism.  It sounds fantastic and I would love for my children to give it a go but they won’t.  They adamantly refuse to try it.  In part I think their earlier experiences have put them off but I also think that the real barrier to them going is other people.  Whatever sensory modifications are done my children cannot cope with other people being near to them and they can’t cope with the noise that other human beings make.  I know this to be true because during a visit to one of our favourite burger places recently I asked my son if the background music was a problem for him.  He replied “no, its other people”.  I looked around.  There weren’t many people in the restaurant (I always try to pick a quiet time) but what few people there were was enough to unsettle him and put him off his food.  If that trip to the restaurant was difficult enough, can you imagine how hard it must be for him and his sister to visit a busy cinema or theatre?

It seems to me that no matter how hard people try to make the cinema or theatre autism friendly they can never be entirely inclusive.  If anything, autism-friendly screenings and relaxed theatre performances are likely to be even more difficult for some people as it is accepted that during these shows people should be free to move around and express themselves.  Unfortunately my children can’t deal with unpredictable or noisy behaviour; they become irritated and angry if people invade their personal space which is probably why an autism-friendly environment is anything but autism friendly for my children.

This is not a criticism against other autistic individuals though and neither is it a criticism against those who work to make such venues inclusive.   Indeed, I believe if autistic people want to visit the cinema or theatre then they should be able to do so, free from sensory pain and judgement from others.  However, I do want people to appreciate that these special performances do not include everyone with an autism spectrum disorder.  No matter how many adaptations are made, cinemas and theatres can be crowded spaces that are very hard for people like my children to deal with.  Maybe in time they will learn to cope but in the meantime they are happiest staying at home and watching a film on their own and in the dark.

Nevertheless I can’t help but question what we hope to achieve by having separate autism-friendly and ordinary mainstream shows because in my experience families like mine can’t access either.  Surely if we improved cinemas and theatres and made them more tolerant places to start with then children like mine may be able to go.  As it is these venues (particularly the cinema) are becoming increasingly unpleasant even for neurotypical people like myself.  The excessive adverts and trailers, the loud volume of films, the noise of people unwrapping sweets, chomping on popcorn and slurping through straws - it’s not a great experience and not something I want to spend my money on anymore.  I’m happier staying at home but the point is if we made cinemas and theatres a better experience for everyone then perhaps we wouldn’t have the need to segregate.

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9 Responses to Are autism-friendly venues really autism friendly?

  1. Janine says:

    Cont… Ourselves welcoming… Ask your theatre if you can come and look around. We offer this and flex the session to what you need. I dont mind if you dont buy tickets im happy that the theatre has been looked at and you as a parent or indervidual have made an informed choice without pressure.

    Its not a tour or special behind the scenes activity it just looks at the public areas and what works for you and your needs.

    It may not help if other people are a problem when you see a show but it is an option to test the environment and eleviate some of the stress linked with new experiances and places.

    Hope this is of interest.


    • Aspie in the family says:

      Thank you so much for replying. The opportunity to test the environment is a fabulous idea and in hindsight I wish I’d done that with my daughter; it may just have lessened the distress she suffered. I hope others read this and feel confident in approaching theatres to organise a look round.

      • Janine (Marketing Officer (Access)) at the Grand Theatre says:

        Hindsight is great but I would dwell in it in this instance, if you do not know, you would not know to ask. I’m pleased to shout that more theatre’s across the UK are becoming Autism Friendly and aware.

        Especially from the Grand’s point of view the more people who enquire about services you can tap into the more aware we are of your needs and how we can adapt or support your visit, its linked to skill and knowledge sharing to help each other adapt.

        As an eternal optimist I hope one day your family will find a theatre setting and performance that’s right and you all have a great time.


  2. Janine says:

    Hi there.

    Ive just found your blog here, i like what youve said. Im the Access Officer at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, who are one of many theatres in the uk who are making productions suitable for autism spectrum people.

    Id like to say that theatres are listening, we are not experts and with each post, comment or call we learn how we can make ourselves welcome

  3. Karen says:

    I have found (and I know I am lucky here) that my autistic daughter copes better with a standard cinema showing than an autism-friendly one for the exact reason of the unpredictability in the latter. We don’t go often, and she needs ear defenders, her weighted lap pad, to be seated on the end of a aisle by the wall, and more often than not to be seated on my lap, but she manages to enjoy a film that way. It has been trial and error, and she is now 7 and although she rarely goes, now we have the sensory side sorted out she doesn’t overload. An autism-friendly screening has too many variables for her.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled that there is at least an attempt to enable access for autistic people, but it just shows once again how limited the thinking is behind the desire to show willing.

  4. Grethe Tozer says:

    Hi I’ve just found your blog , you write very well.
    I am making a website trying to raise understanding and awareness of autism. I was wondering if you would allow me to share one of your posts on my website. I will of course credit it to you and include your blog name and twitter if you want me to. I found a post of yours on google about hooded tops. This one in particular interested me as my son always has to wear his hoodie. My twitter name 8 TOZERS.I would very much appreciate it.

  5. Chloe Brewer says:

    I have just found your blog after you replied to my twitter comment yesterday (I asked if there are any other blogging Mummies with autistic children, I am @a20somethingmum) And I think you make an excellent point here (well two really!) it’s the age old thing of people with autism being pigeon-holed. People who don’t know anything about it assume that those who do have it are all the same, with all the same needs-therefore the idea to come up with a ‘solution’ for cinema screenings etc is in principle a really lovely idea but not one I can see being productive. Square peg, round hole etc as everyone with autism has different needs. And I also think it’s a catch 22 as well, do we make seperate screenings and therefore risk alienating those with autism more? Or do we do nothing and therefore as parents we feel our children are missing out on these normal opportunities? Deffinately well written and very thought provoking! Thank you x

  6. Sarah Emm says:

    The only places I find aren’t suitable are outside places. Playgrounds, towns, walking in the countryside. Alex has no concept of danger and will often put himself or get himself in dangerous situations. I take him to the cinema often and he finds it hilarious often to the annoyance of other people.if they want to say to me shut that child up I will advise them to lighten up. I find its other people’s attitudes that are not Autism friendly and not the venues themselves.
    One of the best autism friendly places we go to is Alton Towers. In fact all of merlin attractions are very good. I honestly think it is in the interests of the child for the parents of autistic parents to grow very thick skins. Often it is an misunderstood condition and people can do and say things that come from ignorance. Your children are the important ones it is their wellbeing that should come before others.

  7. Kate Merriman says:

    totally agree with everything you said!

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