The children do not know that the music is about war, yet they stomp along with the fury. A young boy shakes his hands as though they have caught fire, keeping tempo with the violin’s shrieks. A girl in a pink romper, no older than 6, jumps to her feet to conduct from the 12th row. And at the abrupt end, the children wail without inhibition, because this is how one feels after hearing Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet; this is how one feels when dropped from its dizzying pull. And when children with autism or special needs feel something inside, they often express themselves with movements and sounds.
Myles Bryant, 8, seemed absorbed in the music during the Kennedy String Quartet’s “NSO Kinderkonzert: Musical Opposites” last Saturday. After hearing pieces by Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, he summed up his first concert at the Kennedy Center in just three words:
“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.
“Children with autism have difficulty picking up on social cues,” said Janet Wintrol, director of the Ivymount School. She works with the Kennedy Center on sensory-friendly concerts to ensure that they meet the needs of children on the autism spectrum, which includes Asperger syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders that affect how a person perceives sensory input. “It makes it hard for them to attend concerts. . . . But when something interests them, they stay focused.”
Holly Hamilton, a violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy String Quartet, developed the “Musical Opposites” program with special-needs children in mind. Her son Clark Patterson, 28, has an intellectual disability as well as visual and hearing impairments. Still, he is an opera and classical music enthusiast who often attends his mother’s concerts. Hamilton, who has been an NSO member for 34 years, would take him in the summer to watch the orchestra rehearse at Wolf Trap, where he could applaud and playfully conduct the orchestra from afar without causing a disturbance. Watching him take to concert music convinced her that all children, especially those with special needs, should have the chance to attend concerts.
“Sometimes I think they appreciate music more,” Hamilton said. “They don’t have any inhibitions, so when they really like something, they’ll jump to their feet. They’ll yell, ‘Bravo!’ They’re not afraid to express themselves.”
Hamilton is committed to giving them a place to do just that. In addition to performing at the Kennedy Center, Hamilton takes chamber groups to the Ivymount School and other special-education schools. She also works with Music for Autism, a nonprofit group that stages sensory-friendly performances in cities across the country.
“Our programs create a bridge between the artist and a population that is shut out from the live-performance experience,” said Robert Accordino, a founder of Music for Autism. “In some cases, it wouldn’t be appropriate for a person with autism to attend a concert at the Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center. . . . Our goal is to create a safe space of acceptance that will have a ripple effect later. ”
Theater and performing arts centers around the country are increasingly staging sensory-friendly events for the autism community. To prepare artists and staff, the Kennedy Center worked with Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, Adventure Theater in the D.C. area and the Smithsonian Institution, all of which have sensory-friendly programming.The Smithsonian inaugurated “Morning at the Museum,” a sensory-friendly museum experience, a few years ago and recommended advisers for the Kennedy Center’s program.
“The field of autism is growing,” Betty Siegel, director of the Kennedy Center’s Department of VSA and Accessibility. “We’ve been hearing from patrons and families about the needs of the kids and thought it was time for us to give it a try.”
For the pilot performance in April, demand was so high that the free tickets were gone within 48 hours. The center will host four sensory-friendly performances this season, and given the response, it is anticipating offering more.
Hamilton stresses that all children, not just those with special needs, enjoy the concerts. The musicians teach the children about tempo, dynamics and key changes, all while hamming it up on stage. (The audience howled when cellist David Teie picked up his instrument and played it like a violin.) Children can even play violins and cellos at the instrument “petting zoo” before the concert begins.
“Sometimes it’s hard to engage them,” Hamilton said. “But you know it’s all going in. You just don’t know what’s going to come out.”
Preparing the children for the concert is another consideration. Because children with autism find change difficult, the Kennedy Center posts a pre-visit digital storybook online to help parents familiarize their children with the experience before they arrive. The book illustrates the step-by-step details of concert going, showing ticket machines, ushers, escalators, even the Kennedy Center’s red bus.
Parents such as Hollander appreciate the support.
“Knowing what to expect is always half the battle,” she said.
As for Hamilton, every concert is another opportunity to give children and their families the musical experience that her son had.Having raised a child with a disability, she knows just how much these programs mean to families.
“Many parents have come to us in tears,” Hamilton said. “They say, ‘I can’t take my child to a regular concert. I feel like they’ve missed out.’ Having the sensory-friendly concerts here, they can bring their families to the Kennedy Center and have an outing as a family. It’s fantastic.”
The next sensory-friendly performance at the Kennedy Center is the play “Jason Invisible,” for ages 11 and older, in the Family Theater, at 11 a.m. April 6. $18. 2700 F St. NW, 202-467-4600.
will hold a free sensory-friendly concert with the string trio Presto! on April 20 at the Ivymount School, 11614 Seven Locks Rd., Rockville. RSVP on theirWeb site.