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.