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An autism-friendly outing to see Blue Man Group — without the stares

A Bethesda mom got 500 tickets so her son, who has autism, and others like him could go to the Kennedy Center

About 500 people with Autism Ambassadors, a group started by Whitney Ellenby, watch a sensory-friendly version of the Blue Man Group show at the Kennedy Center. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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Julie Mishkin had planned for the worst in taking her 13-year-old son Jack, who has autism and is nonspeaking, to see a show at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

She had mapped out the logistics of getting Jack early from school, driving on the highway so he could see wheels of trucks and ride the escalators at the performing arts facility — two activities he loves to do. Her biggest fear: She’d have to bail if he had a meltdown.

But much to her relief — and happiness — Jack enjoyed a sensory-friendly version of the Blue Man Group performance art show last Thursday, along with 350 other children and adults who have autism and 150 of their family members.

“To see him sit there and look at more than half of the show, it was incredible,” said Mishkin, of Potomac, after the show. “I was crying. This is his first theater experience. I was very stressed, but seeing the joy in his face and just that moment was worth it.”

The outing was organized and privately funded by Whitney Ellenby, of Bethesda, a former lawyer turned disability advocate whose 21-year-old son Zack Reuben has autism and has minimal language. She worked for more than nine months to organize the event, talking to the show’s production team and officials at the Kennedy Center, and got them to agree to a performance with a few alterations. She then invited people she knows in the autism community and their families to see it free. Because the show has few words, Ellenby said, it was a good fit for those with autism who often have trouble with language.

The general public could buy tickets to the show and were told it was a sensory-friendly performance.

“We wanted to create a space where anything goes,” Ellenby said. “This is a no-shushing zone. We get to be ourselves.”

Officials at the Kennedy Center said they briefed ushers for the matinee show to throw out the normal theater etiquette of no talking, eating or standing up in the theater.

“It’s about us making sure people feel welcome at the Kennedy Center and can be who they are and exist in our space however they feel comfortable,” said Jessica Swanson, the center’s manager of accessibility.

For Mishkin, there were a few hiccups.

When she and her son got to the Kennedy Center, he tried to ride down the up escalator, but it “threw him backward” and he fell. That startled Jack, and he felt overwhelmed and started biting his hand. It is not uncommon for some people with autism to engage in self-injurious behavior when they feel flooded with stress or overwhelmed, according to Mishkin.

Staff at the Kennedy Center rushed to ask how they could help, and Mishkin pulled from her bag snacks and his speech-generating device in hopes he could use it and tell her what he wanted. Eventually, Jack calmed himself and got up, and they headed inside the theater. He glanced up from his touch screen game of matching shapes at times to watch the show, hold his mom’s hand and smile.

During the show, which lasted about 1 hour and 20 minutes, a few people stood up and danced. A teenager jumped up and down, leaning on a rail in the back row. Nearby, a man in his 40s rocked back and forth in his seat a behavior known as “stimming,” where someone with autism does a repetitive motion or makes unique movements or noises to help them cope with a situation that feels overwhelming. A few rows away, many children wore headphones to soften the noise. Throughout the show, there were occasional moans and yelps, and lots of hand waving, smiles, laughs and cheers.

It was a far different vibe, said many parents and family members who came with their loved ones, than the reception they typically get when they’ve tried to take someone with autism to the movies, an amusement park, bowling alley or the store, and get finger-pointing or hushed whispers if the person with autism has a tantrum or becomes too loud. While there are some sensory- or autism-friendly events in the D.C. region, many in the community said there aren’t enough.

“My son can be who he truly is, and I don’t have to be on high alert here,” said Eva Scheer, who lives in Bethesda, as her 21-year-old son Cade, who has autism, paced in the lobby. “We can’t do this in any other setting because there would be stares and comments.”

More than a decade ago, Ellenby started a group she calls Autism Ambassadors, and once a month she hosts a low-fee event for those with autism and their families at a splash park, trampoline place, indoor gym or movie theater.

At a Virginia water park, a judgment-free event for families of children with autism

She and her husband hadn’t been able to host the events for the past two years because of the pandemic, but she said she wanted to do something “really big” and came up with the idea of inviting her group to a performance of the Blue Man Group at the Kennedy Center.

Ellenby became well known in the autism community and wrote a book called “Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain” about her controversial methods of taking her then-5-year-old son to see a movie and an Elmo show. He screamed, thrashed and kicked while she physically restrained and comforted him until he calmed down. One passerby called her a bad mom. Someone spat on her, and a man threw a soda on her as she held her son on the ground and inched him to their seats.

Perspective: Bystanders were horrified. But my son has autism, and I was desperate.

Most experts would advise helping someone with autism overcome anxiety about going to new places or doing a new activity by introducing them to it first with pictures and then gradually or repeatedly taking them there, according to autism advocates. Ellenby’s son ended up making it through the performances, and after going to other outings in a more all-at-once approach, she said, he’s gotten over his powerful fear of enclosed spaces.

“I ripped the Band-Aid off, and now his self esteem is stronger than mine,” Ellenby said. “He’s become less self conscious, and there’s no place he can’t go.”

For many of the parents who have attended her events, including the one at the Kennedy Center, it was a chance to help their children learn how to deal with noisy and new places.

Sitting in the front row with his parents, 7-year-old Gavin Hacker, who has autism and lives in Germantown, rocked in his seat as the show unfolded. His mom, Jessica, said she was thrilled he sat for more than an hour and listened and watched the show.

“He can’t sit for four minutes at class,” she said. “That’s incredible. He never left his seat.”

About 20 minutes into the show, Ellenby approached Hannah Hasselschwert, a 10-year-old nonspeaking autistic individual who had come to the show with her parents. She was leaning against a wall outside the theater while her parents sat nearby.

Maria Ott, Hannah’s mom, said her daughter likes to hear and feel sensory things but at times the “lights, sounds and people all around” can become too much.

Ellenby asked if she could help ease — and physically touch — Hannah to get her into the theater. Hannah and her parents agreed.

In seconds, Ellenby had gently bear-hugged Hannah and slowly walked her into a back-row seat, where she sat on Ellenby’s lap and eventually rocked back and forth to the beat of the drummers onstage.

“Good girl,” Ellenby told Hannah, who wiggled on her lap. “This whole show is for you. I’m proud of you. You did it.”

After they got back to their home in Kensington, Ott said she asked her daughter what she thought about Ellenby. Hannah responded, using a special communication device.

“Love.”

Her mom then asked her what she thought of the show. Hannah responded.

“Super cool.”

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