Whitney Ellenby is the author of “Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain,” founder of the charitable venture Autism Ambassadors and a former Justice Department disability rights attorney.
Yes , I knew it was risky. In a society designed for neuro-typical consumers, more than a decade ago I dared to take my autistic 5-year-old, Zack, to a Broadway showing of “The Lion King.”
Anticipating Zack’s excitement, I’d bought tickets for the very back row, in the section for those with disabilities. Seconds in, Zack’s thrill at the orchestral tuning erupted in yelps and vigorous bouncing in his seat. A nearby woman in a wheelchair was the first to cast a dark glare. Seconds later, management was summoned to insist that we leave. Forfeiting $200 on tickets was the least of my anguish as I seized Zack and began moving him frantically toward an exit. Dirty looks ushered us out, the collective disapproval that such a parent would dare take this type of child to the theater.
As I took Zack, kicking and screaming, toward the exit, I was startled to see several cast members in extravagant costumes waiting in the lobby to stage a dramatic entrance. One cast member spotted us, quickly surmised the crisis and with a glimmer of sorrow cued other cast members into a gentle serenade as I wept.
Years later, the serenade reached our “outcast” population — families with autism — as Broadway had its first-ever sensory-friendly showing of “The Lion King.”
The irony that the patron who got Zack evicted from the show had a disability herself highlights a painful truth. Physical disabilities are often quiet and can assimilate in crowds; autism is disruptive and unwelcome. Making room for autism requires not just structural but also temperamental adjustments that few are willing to make if they infringe on their own enjoyment. Which, frankly, is entirely fair. Folks who spend good money on entertainment should not have their experiences disrupted.
So what’s the answer? It’s regular sensory-friendly opportunities, for three reasons.
First, sensory-friendly is a civil right. Nothing in disability law requires that disabled people come quietly or conventionally. As long as accommodating someone such as Zack doesn’t require a venue or service to be fundamentally altered, access is required under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
I understand that Zack’s vocalizing and others’ behaviors affect the experience and service of those around him. But there’s a simple workaround to this problem: designated sensory-friendly offerings. Setting aside a regular number of theater performances or flights or movie showings or restaurant hours to give my son and others like him equal access and opportunity should be regarded as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
I place the responsibility with vendors who can afford to provide sensory-friendly opportunities but still do not. Why not provide theater showings with gentler light and sound levels, or that allow attendees to make noise and roam around? One in 59 children in the United States has autism, but the available opportunities are nowhere commensurate with those numbers. As a result, parents often feel unwelcome in common spaces that other people freely inhabit, even though our children have done nothing wrong.
Second, sensory-friendly is a path to inclusion. Separate adapted events are the means by which even severely autistic people may eventually mainstream. With repeated exposure to a venue or service on their own disabled terms, people such as Zack may acclimate enough to join in with the general public. Sensory-friendly policy thus preserves a crucial choice: Those who can integrate with the public will. But those who cannot still have the same opportunities everyone else enjoys, without it becoming a way to segregate children with disabilities from the mainstream.
Finally, sensory-friendly is good for business. About 10 years ago, I responded to the recreational void in my town by organizing private events for families with autism, and an intriguing pattern emerged. After vendors witness a unique brand of consumers palpably overjoyed to access their facility, it dawns on them that excluding an entire population of customers is both financially unwise and morally unjust. Several of these businesses, such as Regal Cinemas in Rockville, now proudly host their own sensory-friendly events and enjoy a large turnout.
Today at 17, Zack is still a live wire. The difference is that I’m no longer willing to abandon venues at the sound of the first yelp. No, I don’t wish to ram my son’s autism down others’ throats, but if the only recreational option for my son is to join with the general public, I’ll take my disruptive chances. And it does indeed get tense for all of us — but as the occasional yelp escapes him, patrons irritated by Zack would be well advised to join me in insisting that vendors create regular opportunities for this deserving demographic.