Lisa Jeffers curls an arm around her son Bradley’s shoulders as he sinks into their worn, grey couch. After a long day of school and therapy, he’s eager to rest his head on his mother’s chest. It lands right next to her puzzle piece necklace - a symbol for families touched by autism.
All three of Jeffers’ children are autistic, but at age seven Bradley still struggles the most. He’s prone to loud outbursts and is easily distracted, so the family avoids plays and concerts that require lots of sitting, she says.
This weekend, though, Bradley and his two sisters are off to the ballet for the very first time.
They have tickets to a Capital Dance Project show designed specifically for children with autism and other disabilities.
“We go to the movie theatre, but nothing live,” Lisa Jeffers says. “I wasn’t sure how they could handle it, and I figured this would be a great experience to see how they do and if they enjoy it.”
It’s a “sensory-friendly” ballet for children who get overwhelmed by crowds, loud noises, and other stimuli. At this performance the lights will be dimmed but not dark, the sound will be low, and traditional theatre etiquette will be tossed out the window.
“You can talk during the performance, you can get up and move around, you can sing,” says project director and dancer Alexandra Cunningham. “The goal is just to make people feel comfortable and welcome to be themselves.”
The Studio Movie Grill in Rocklin offers special needs showings, and the Crocker Art Museum has programs for autistic children, but the Capital Dance Project ballet is Sacramento’s first sensory-friendly dance performance.
There are a number of reasons why autistic children might struggle in a theatre, says UC Davis psychologist Aubyn Stahmer. Because of the way their brains process visual and auditory input, some children might find thunderous applause painful. Others dislike being touched or feel anxious in tight spaces.
“You come in, it’s super dark, and there’s a super bright light that changes a lot, and big crashing noises or loud music … you can imagine if you have sensitivity to both light and sound, how it could be really overwhelming,” she says.
The need for autism-inclusive performances has grown clearer as the disorder becomes more prevalent. About 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism now, compared to 1 in 1,000 in the late 90s.
Julian Maha is an advocate for sensory-friendly spaces, and his Alabama non-profit Kulture City helped Cunningham prepare for her show. He says families of people on the spectrum are often afraid to go out for fear of being judged.
“You have this huge amount of people who are unable to really connect with community because of their sensory issues, and that’s why you’ve seen this demand arise from individuals and their families,” he says.
Maha has helped zoos, museums and sports venues across the country become more inclusive. His organization provides behavioral therapists, fidget toys and noise-canceling headphones - all of which will be available at the Capital Dance Project performance. He’s currently in talks with the new Sacramento Kings arena about accommodations.
Many children on the autism spectrum do best when they’re on a routine - or at least know what to expect. About a week before the show, Cunningham sent audience members a “social story.” It’s a flip book with pictures explaining exactly what kids will experience from the minute they walk through the doors to the final curtain.
John Velasco of the California Ballet Company in San Diego says social stories are a big part of their sensory-friendly Nutcracker each holiday season. They also hold “sugar plum parties” after the show where children can meet and greet the dancers.
“Bringing that sort of relatability, that kind of physical relationship, that brings a realness to audience members where they can see that these are real people, that what happened was a projection,” Velasco says.
Meeting the Capital Dance Project performers will likely be a highlight for five-year-old Raona Jeffers, who is an aspiring ballerina herself.
Her mom thinks the 30-minute performance will be a big step for all three kids.
“I hope they enjoy it, cause we’ll be out more,” Lisa Jeffers says. “We’ll have to try some longer length, it’ll be fun.”
She also hopes performances like this will teach other people about her children, and about autism in general.
“Some people tend to think that kids that are autistic, that they don’t want to socialize with other kids because they struggle socially and that’s totally not true,” she says. “They do. They just don’t know how. Be patient with them.”
The Capital Dance Project Sensory Friendly event takes place from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 25th at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento. Tickets and more information can be found at CapitalDanceProject.org.