“It was real,” he said confidently. Somewhere, Shostakovich is smiling.
The Kennedy Center’s “sensory-friendly” performances make special accommodations for children on the autism spectrum, who are sensitive to loud noises, bright lights and sudden movements. The center has offered three sensory-friendly shows since April, and they are proving popular: A sellout crowd of 280 attended “Musical Opposites,” with tickets priced at $18. To accommodate special-needs children, the lights in the theater remain at a low level, and the rows are half-empty so the children can move around. Music is vetted by experts, and ushers are given special training to prepare for the children, many of whom have never before been to a concert hall.
“This is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to do something like this,” Dane Bryant, Myles’s father, said of his family’s outing to the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. Daughter Nija, 10, plays the piano and the cello but had never been able to attend a children’s concert with her whole family because her brother is on the autism spectrum.
“He can be a little impatient,” Dane Bryant said of Myles, who attends the Ivymount School in Rockville for children with special needs. “But he seemed to be paying attention, which is always a plus.”
Marla Hollander brought her 8-year-old son, Benjamin Katz-Hollander, to the concert. She said he has taken guitar lessons as a form of music therapy but had never been to a classical concert in Washington.
“We are tickled to see the sensory-friendly performance and to try to give him this experience,” she said. “Music is just another way for us to connect.”
Until recently, concerts at performing arts centers around the country were not widely available to special-needs children. The concert hall is arguably one of the most restrictive spaces in American culture, with social codes that dictate dress, behavior and manners. Few children, let alone those with special needs, can sit through a Mahler symphony without squirming.
The program signifies a shift for what was once an excluded community. Those with varying degrees of autism can attend concerts and plays with their parents, a luxury many have never had the chance to experience. Surrounded by others who understand the daily challenges of autism, no one stares if a child cries out during Debussy or darts for the door during Pachelbel’s Canon.