A Brief History of Sensory-Friendly Performances in Pittsburgh, PA

Sensory-Friendly performances have become a relatively new tradition for many families in the Pittsburgh area. The venues offer a “relaxed” atmosphere that is calm and welcoming. The accessible performances emerged in 2013, and have continued to create lifelong memories for people with autism or sensory processing disorders ever since, and the Pittsburgh CLO has adopted the tradition with its sensory-friendly A Musical Christmas Carol.

Autism Connection spoke with Vanessa Braun from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Lindsey Kaine from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to learn the history of sensory-friendly performances in the Steel City, beginning with two groundbreaking features: The Lion King and The Nutcracker.

Autism Connection: How did the wonderful opportunity to bring sensory-friendly performances to Pittsburgh present itself?

Vanessa Braun: I first learned that the Theater Development Fund in New York City was making Broadway shows accessible to an audience on the spectrum through a piece on the national news. I went to work the next day and brought it up in a conversation with our Director and Assistant Director of Guest Services, telling them that this was happening in New York, and did they think that we could make a similar show happen in Pittsburgh. They then told me that The Lion King would be returning to Pittsburgh in 2013, and that they loved the idea and agreed with me that we were completely capable of bringing an autism-friendly or sensory friendly show to the Pittsburgh market.

“We started a trend and Pittsburgh, our region, has actually become a national leader in autism-friendly and sensory-friendly programming, which we’re pretty proud of and it’s impressive for a small city like ours.”  -Vanessa Braun


Autism Connection: What did your research entail?

Vanessa Braun: Three representatives from the Cultural Trust traveled to the Kennedy Center’s (LEAD) conference and attended a session about their work conceiving of and executing their two shows with Disney, The Lion King, and Mary Poppins. We also met with the Theater Development team at the conference. They invited us to New York to see their second Lion King show in action.

After our fact-finding trip, we really got into the fine details of making this show happen. We secured the date with the tour, and it was to be the third week of a four-week run. It was vital for us to choose a Saturday to appeal to as many families as possible. We also stayed connected with our friends at the Ballet. Their first show would take place in December of 2013, and we worked together on some outreach, and of course, took the lead on training our front of house staff who would later work their show.

“Our sensory-friendly performances are a step toward making the excitement and beauty of a ballet performance barrier-free, accessible and welcoming to everyone in our Pittsburgh community.” Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre


Autism Connection: What kind of organizational commitment did each of your organizations invest in these shows?

Vanessa Braun and Lindsey Kaine: For us it was first financial, even with a group discount on the entire house, we wrote Disney a 200,000 check to buy out every seat. Why, may you ask, do we buy out the house?  It is because we recognize that Broadway is an expensive endeavor. If you are coming to a typical show, you are paying $60-150 or more per ticket. Top tickets for Hamilton were going for $450 per ticket. We know that that is prohibitive for a family, and we know that parents of children on the spectrum, or who have other academic or sensory needs.

Autism Connection: Did you hold special trainings for staff and volunteers? Did you bring in outside experts?

Vanessa and Lindsey: Every volunteer and front of house staff member was specially selected to work our first show. Even with our high criteria we brought in our friend and expert, Lu Randall Executive Director of the Autism Connection to train our team. Everyone who was in the theater that day was trained by Lu. Over the past ten years she has continued to train our staff and volunteer core and she and her team have been invaluable to us.

Another group of people who we work with is the group of actors who are on stage. We like them to know a bit about our audience and differences that they may experience in timing or audience reaction. We explain that some laughs or applause breaks may differ from the typical show that they do night after night. We always get a great response from these cast meetings.



Autism Connection: For readers who may not have been to your performances, can you describe the differences and similarities to a typical performance that an audience member may see at one of your shows?

Vanessa and Lindsey: First, we have a team of outside professional volunteers, doctors, teachers, nurses, people who know the audience and who can help if needed. We spread them out throughout the venue. Then in the lobby we set up at least one quiet space and one activity space. In these areas, people can either stop in to blow off some steam or alternatively come to have a moment of calm.

In the theater itself, we have the lights up to about a quarter of their regular brightness, this is so that people can feel free to get up and down if they need to throughout the show. We have ushers and theater staff to hand out fidgets and share needed information. We allow personal snacks and communications devices that you would not see at a typical show.

Other than that, we want the experience to be regular with some supports, but regular. Production–what people see on the stage–is controlled by the touring show, but a few elements are softened or removed. So, the show takes out a bright flash of light or a sudden noise. The important thing is that the show stays true to itself.

Photo of an audience enjoying a sensory friendly performance at the Benedum

Audience enjoying a sensory-friendly performance


Autism Connection: What do you have in mind for the future?

Vanessa Braun: In 2015 we started offering one sensory friendly show each year at the Children’s Theater Festival. We will continue that practice and keep an eye on the Broadway touring schedule. We look for shows out there that have broad based appeal, a show that will attract at least 2,000 community members, and a show that will be with us for three weeks or more. We love to bring Broadway to this new audience and are excited for the chance to do it again.


Family Division of the Allegheny County Courthouse Initiates Sensory-Friendly Areas

Autism Connection of Pennsylvania is thrilled to announce sensory-friendly areas in development at the Family Division of the Allegheny County Courthouse. We explored the facility with The Honorable Jennifer McCrady, the judge who initiated the project, who also took time to answer our questions about the importance of sensory-sensitive spaces.

Photo of Judge McCrady in sensory room

Judge Jennifer McCrady stands in the Sensory Room in the Allegheny County Family Division Courthouse

Autism Connection: What prompted you to create the sensory-friendly areas?

Judge McCrady: The Family Division is a chaotic environment and can be very overwhelming for members of the community to navigate. The majority of the individuals entering the building have experienced a trauma and may have any number of disabilities. We, as a court, needed to do better to recognize that the physical space was not conducive to the population that we serve. After input from stakeholders, youth, and families, the court partnered with Carnegie Mellon Human Centered Design class to revamp the space and communication. As part of the recommendations from CMU, it was clear that the court needed to make improvements for individuals with disabilities. The sensory room provides a quiet and calm space for an individual in a rather chaotic environment.

Using Physical Space to Create a Sense of Wellbeing

Autism Connection: Is physical space important to a person’s sense of wellbeing?

Judge McCrady: Yes, physical space is very important to a person’s wellbeing. The need for a calm, quiet, and safe space may be critical to helping the individual to successfully navigate the process. As a court and through the many improvements implemented, we are striving to be transparent, promote trustworthiness, and provide the public with a sense of empowerment as they navigate a stressful and hectic environment.

Photo of sensory room with dim blue lights and images of parrots projected on wall next to a bubble tube machine

Photo of sensory room in the Family Division of the Allegheny County Courthouse


Autism Connection: What is the first step others can take in creating similar environments?

Judge McCrady: Start small by providing fidget toys to youth, improve signage in the facility, train system players and frontline court employees on how to interact with members of the public in a trauma-informed way. The first encounter with a court employee can set the tone for the rest of the experience. Build toward creating sensory spaces and sensory areas. Improve docket management systems so there is less downtime as well as reasonable expectations for waiting time. Provide quiet and cleaning waiting spaces with access to vending machines and wi-fi service.

Technology: digital signage, kiosk check in, case tracking on screen, language access, charging stations, text notifications, hybrid hearings, iPads for children


Safe Family Resource Center and Wellness Clinic

Private room with comfortable large pillows, play area, and table with chairls

Safe Family Resource Center: Confidential areas for victims of abuse. Self-contained, private, play space for children and youth with separate waiting and check-in areas for plaintiffs and defendants

 

Wellness Clinic

Wellness Clinic:
Easy access in the Children’s Room staffed by Children’s Hospital professionals, and available for all children waiting for a hearing


Creating the Conditions for Sensory-Friendly, Trauma-Informed Spaces

Judge McCrady anticipates factors that can add to stress when visiting the courthouse. The project addresses these issues by creating safe spaces, using technology, and clear signage throughout the building. Visitors know where they need to be, and when. Details like charging stations Wi-Fi access can alleviate common concerns. The sensory room serves as a retreat where visitors have control of their surroundings.

Seating with light controls in sensory room

Comfortable seating with light and sound control


Autism Connection: Do you see this work becoming standard practice?

Judge McCrady: We found that there are many foundations and funders who are interested in this type of project and willing to help offset costs. If not for the many foundations that we worked with, we would not have been able to accomplish this project. Our hope is that court systems recognize the impact that trauma can have on an individual, and how important it is for our public court spaces to provide the appropriate and necessary trauma-informed accommodations for those with disabilities. It is an attainable goal.


Behavioral Health Commission Special Report 2022

We are powered by an amazing board of trustees who actively engage in the work we need to in order to be a lifeline for families and adults, which is our mission. One of our unsung heroes is the Hon. William F. Ward (Bill) who serves on the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD). As PCCD’s representative, Bill was key in creating funding opportunities in this Behavioral Health Commission Special Report. Follow the link below to read the full report.

Behavioral-Health-Commission-Report

Act 54 Areas of Focus (page 3)

  • Delivery of services using telemedicine
  • Behavioral health rates, network adequacy, and mental health payment parity
  • Workforce development and retention
  • Expansion of certified peer support specialist services and peer-run services
  • Development and provision of crisis services
  • Integration of behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment
  • Cultural competencies when providing behavioral health care
  • Impact of social determinants of health on behavioral health
  • Intersection of behavioral health and the criminal justice system
  • Establishment of an integrated care model that can deliver timely psychiatric care in a primary care setting

On page 7, the Commission recommends that we “develop and expand upon pre-arrest diversion programs that connect people with resources in a time of crisis, including individuals with intellectual disabilities and with autism spectrum disorder.”

Bill Ward took a few moments to answer some clarifying questions about the recommendations:

Bill Ward

Bill Ward, Past Chair, Autism Connection of PA Board of Trustees

Autism Connection: What does “pre-arrest” actually mean?

Bill Ward: There are two different types of arrests. There is a custodial arrest, which is when a person is detained, is not free to leave the scene, placed in handcuffs, and removed to the local police department. (There are also non-custodial arrests, such as when a person is given a citation or ticket for a summary offense but is allowed to leave the scene without being processed at the local police department.)  The concept of “pre-arrest” is focused upon those encounters or incidents where the police have the discretion to not detain and charge a person, but instead would “divert” them from being criminally charged.  In my mind, “pre-arrest” is too narrow a restriction.  More often, the police will detain and charge a person.  Even so, much good work can be done to divert the offender after the arrest but prior to the Preliminary Hearing, usually set for 10 days later.

Autism Connection: Can you give us a brief description of the co-responder model? Is there a good resource for this model?

Bill Ward: One definition is: “A model for crisis response that pairs trained police officers with mental health professionals to respond to incidents involving individuals experiencing behavioral health crises.”  Here’s a link to an article discussing the co-responder model:

Responding to Individuals in Behavioral Health Crisis Via Co-Responder Models

The BHC Report recommends that $5 million be dedicated to counties to develop or expand co-responder models, and to train first responders in crisis intervention.

Autism Connection: Anything you’d like to add?

Bill Ward:  Yes. While $23.5 million is recommended to improve the criminal justice and public safety systems, $5 million (of the $23.5 million) will be to develop and expand upon pre-arrest diversion programs that connect people with resources in a time of crisis. The Behavioral Health Commission was receptive to put in that such funding expressly include “individuals with Intellectual Disabilities and with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”


Autism Connection of Pennsylvania recognizes the tireless dedication our Board of Trustees demonstrates. When you see something that speaks to your need, know that our awesome board has had their fingerprints on that – for our literal minded readers, this means they have inspired, worked on, or supported that activity in a meaningful way.

 

Afraid to Drive: Look to the Helpers

My daughter, 17 years old and autistic, was crying inconsolably last night. It’s one of the most difficult things for a parent to experience, especially when the reason for the upset isn’t readily apparent.

“What happened?” I asked.

Tear flooded eyes locked just past my gaze. “I’m afraid to drive.”

And I knew what she meant.

“Me too,” I said. “But I know that there’s people who can help.”

The Helpers

Times of despair such as we as a nation are experiencing after multiple mass shootings, evolve into a collective grief that can’t readily be put into words, if ever. We are grieving, and coping with grief can be aided by, as Mr. Rogers said, looking to the helpers.

When we think of crisis, we often think of first responders, those on the scenes during tragic situations. The helpers. But help can come in many forms. Autism Connection received a note from a volunteer from the 2022 Pittsburgh Marathon about their experience. When I asked if I could use this piece, they said, “It seems so insignificant considering the magnitude of current events.”

But it is significant.

A Message from a Quiet Helper

“I’ve always thought the Marathon was a real pain in the ass, mostly because of the inconvenience it sometimes caused me. Like being stuck in traffic and rerouted around the city because the Marathon shuts down many streets for hours.

And so, when I recently found myself standing on Carson Street with a group of volunteers from Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, handing out cups of water to runners in this year’s race, I was doing something that was…well, weird for me: supporting—voluntarily! —an event that I really didn’t like.  Plus, it was pouring out. And very early in the morning. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is going to be a very, very long day…’

Turns out it was a great day, and I experienced several moments of true gratitude. As I watched the thousands of runners pass by—some running effortlessly, many others clearly struggling—my feelings about the Marathon began to change.

There were a LOT of runners, with different body types and different abilities. Of course, there were those at the head of the pack and they seemed to fly by. But most of them were just like the rest of us—in the middle of the pack—struggling through the challenges of their day.

These were all people trying to achieve a goal that they had set.  Not all of them would, but they were trying, in the rain, just like me. And maybe, with a word of encouragement and a cup of water, I could help them reach that goal.

And any inconvenience the Marathon may have caused me in the past? Please. Compared to many people, my struggles are very minimal and I take so much for granted.

So, thank you Pittsburgh Marathon. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to get outside myself. And maybe help make somebody’s journey a little easier.

With a cup of water!

Imagine that.”

Afraid to Drive

My daughter’s voice, her way of communicating her grief, came in unexpected ways. But she was able to put into words—her own words—what many of us are feeling. We may be afraid to drive, but we keep driving forward.

A Note of Thanks

Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, a lifeline and hub for the autistic community, is deeply grateful to the helpers, the first responders, and the ones who quietly move the world into a more peaceful, loving place of acceptance.


Editorial: Wings and Things

Note:  I am a slow processor, especially around trauma, in large part because I have PTSD from witnessing one murder, seeing news coverage of two friends’ murders, and being assaulted with the threat of being killed — all random stranger crimes. Lots of people have PTSD for lots of reasons – it’s not just for veterans! I didn’t know that for over 30 years and I credit my friend Kris Veenis and his amazing documentary for waking me up to my own hidden disability.  Denial is a powerful thing and I am glad some of mine melted away.

Trauma etches into our nervous systems and can be a lasting medical issue in those of us genetically wired to respond in a lingering fight or flight response, triggered by random linked details, or more-obviously disturbing events. I wrote the post below about the predatory murders in Buffalo and in the process of sleeping on it, other tragedies occurred in California and Texas, because our society is broken and I am in delay mode because none of us have the luxury of time, nor the benefit of actual healing things we need in order to process it all.

golden flickering lights that seem to extend into an endless black voic

Yayoi Kusama, “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity”

This Editorial is from last week but it’s still true today:

Our mission is to be a lifeline and hub for families and adults, providing support, information, and advocacy. 

Why do we care more about some issues than others?  Why do I feel more impacted by the latest (but not last) mass shooting, this one targeting people of color, in a city I lived, worked, played, and learned in, versus one that happened somewhere else?

I lived in Buffalo for four years of college plus summers – it was a great, freeing, artsy place where I could ride my bike over the Peace Bridge to Canada, following Niagara River Boulevard where I would pedal all the way up past a convent where the women wore brown, birdlike head pieces, ala the Flying Nun (a 1960’s reference, you can Google it). I just learned those are called “cornettes.”  It was a nice adventure.

Living a block or two from the Albright Knox Art Gallery gave me access to a great summer job and internship where I met some of my first kids with autism who tread into the mirrored cube in socks covering tentative feet, stepping into a visual infinity where some just could not enter the room.  I had a lot to learn about the brain and their visual perception – and they were my first teachers.

Buffalo is where I also did an internship at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf where kids were kids and when in trouble, they’d squeeze their eyes shut tight so they couldn’t see me sign “Slow down! Stop running!  Calm!”  Then they would rapidly sign to each other secretly, beneath the lunch table I was monitoring, so I couldn’t see their complaints about me. Authority figures are no fun sometimes!

That’s where I took a bus from the West Side at Buff State (white neighborhoods where people looked like me) to the East side (black neighborhoods) where St. Mary’s was located, and I was the only white person on the bus after the transfer.  That bus is where I got to feel, for about one hour a week, what it was like to be the only person in the “room” who looked different, literally standing out because there was only room to stand when I’d get on. I was an “other.”

I carry this experiential gift with me, one that taught the briefest lesson of empathy for people who experience being the “Only One” in the room every single day, based on how much melanin is in their skin and how white the room is. Feeling like a stranger, and then eventually acting kind of invisible (my choice and my reaction, not the choice for everyone).  Not fitting in and yet knowing this was a split-second snapshot relative to those living their entire life being “othered”, realizing I could step off that bus at home and re-absorb myself in an environment where I looked like the majority any time I wanted to – the very easy way out.

Things that are painful or scary or tragic seem to matter more when they happen to us – that’s just human nature.  Some people assume that if we care about a cause – say, skin cancer or autism or racial justice – we must have personal lived experience with that issue. It’s always surprising to me – although by now it should not be – to have people assume at least one of my sons (even all my sons) are autistic, based on my vocation.

They are not.

My youngest googled himself one day and found a photo of him and his brothers with me and their dad at a charity restaurant event – labeling all the boys at the time as autistic.  “I wonder what else mom isn’t telling us!” he thought.

Why does Autism Connection work with, and on behalf of, ourselves and people with specific disabilities?  How can we successfully move beyond our original mission to care and take action, alongside and for all who are oppressed, misunderstood, stereotyped and marginalized, beyond those who may live in our house or occupy part of our hearts as friends or family members?

How can we expect others to stand up for people in the autism community, at risk or seen as “less than”, unless we are willing to stand up for all vulnerable people, especially those terrorized by hate and violence?

Let’s share our strength and advocacy experience with anyone in need – especially if we are in the majority – and live out the words “justice for all.”  Contact me to talk or write back and forth about how you may want to explore this idea, if it’s new to you.  We get immersed in our own concerns because immersion is survival – but diversity brings strength to all things in nature, and we humans need all the shared help we can provide to each other.

Lu Randall


Reverent Gratitude: Saying Goodbye to Curtis Upsher, Jr. 1949 – 2022

Our dear friend and brilliant board member, Curtis Upsher Jr., died suddenly a little over one month ago.

A person’s value and their connection to us is in part measured in how many times we reach for the phone or think of sending an email to check in with them, hear their thoughts, and listen to their latest story about their family or a project.  By that measure, we hold Curtis in very high regard, he being a key figure in the lives of fellow board members and staff at the Autism Connection of PA.  He was a dear friend, a mentor, and a teacher, who patiently crafted critical and valuable life lessons and advice without explicitly telling us he was doing that; he was that humble. Curtis’s strategic thinking and amazing life experience was full of great stories and examples he shared with us, helping us grow as individual people and as an organization.

 

We owe him a huge debt of gratitude, and we miss him very much.

Photo of Curtis Upsher Jr with his arm around fellow Board Member Steve Crane both are smiling into the camera

Curtis Upsher Jr. with fellow Board Member, Steve Crane