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Spiderman stages a special performance for autistic fans

March 2, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ivette Feliciano visits a Theater Development Fund project that stages special performances for children with autism. On the set of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, producers and actors work with specialists to make the shows as close to the regular as possible for an audience especially sensitive to jarring lights and sounds.
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TRANSCRIPT

This report was originally broadcast on Dec., 21, 2013. 

IVETTE FELICIANO: This might look like a typical Saturday matinee on Broadway…

But the fact that Annmarie Scotti is here with her son Nick, tells you it’s anything but…

(Annmarie Scotti: “Hey Nick, you ready?”)

IVETTE FELICIANO: And tickets for this particular performance weren’t available to the general public; they were only sold to families like hers…

(Annmarie Scotti: “we are in row f”)

IVETTE FELICIANO: Why?

Because this performance of “Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark” was specially tailored for people with autism…

People like 10-year-old Nick Scotti, who often has a very difficult time going to any kind of show.

(Nick: “I’m very excited!” Annmarie: “You’re excited?!”)

ANNMARIE SCOTTI: When you’re on the spectrum, some kids either flap their hands, or scream. They have impulses. When you go to places, I always feel like I’m on guard. I have to be, like, okay, my son has autism. I’m sorry if he does something to, you know, to bother you or upset you, but I want him to be able to enjoy this as well.

(Annmarie Scotti: “see right there, the lady”)

autism play

IVETTE FELICIANO: Annmarie Scotti says her family has walked out of performances, wasting hundreds of dollars because of disapproving stares and comments from other audience members.

ANNMARIE SCOTTI: Nick actually wanted to see Spiderman in the worst way. And that, I gotta tell you, is one play I was not gonna go take them to.

IVETTE FELICIANO: That’s where the Theater Development Fund stepped in…

LISA CARLING-DIRECTOR, THEATER DEVELOPMENT FUND: This is a way of ensuring a warm, welcoming environment, judgment-free, so that families can come and relax and have a good time and not worry about how the person on the spectrum is going to behave or what– other people might think.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Lisa Carling is director of accessibility programs at the Theater Development Fund. The non-profit organization coordinates autism-friendly performances on Broadway, like these, four times a year. TDF’s mission is to make live theater more accessible to diverse audiences…

LISA CARLING-DIRECTOR, THEATER DEVELOPMENT FUND: So we hope to raise awareness about autism and help people become more accepting and more inclusive.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Here are some of the things you’ll see at an autism friendly show that you wouldn’t see on Broadway otherwise:

Ushers have about 30 extra helpers on hand…They hand out colorful stress relievers and koosh balls called manipulatives to help autistic audience members relax before and during the performance.

Producers and actors work with autism specialists to make the autism friendly shows as close to the regular shows as possible…but this audience is especially sensitive to jarring lights and sounds…

So audio levels are reduced by about 20%, and strobe lights are completely eliminated.

Yet organizers say it’s what happening off the stage that truly makes this Broadway performance unique.

SAM BLANCO, AUTISM SPECIALIST, TDF: We have children and adults with autism at the show so if they need a break; they have a place that they can come to.

The usually empty lobbies are transformed into activity spaces with bean bags and toys for families who need a break from the sensory overload…And if anyone needs a bigger break, some sections are designated to be completely silent.

SAM BLANCO, AUTISM SPECIALIST, TDF: I’ve been working with kids with autism for 10 years and I’ve never seen so many of them openly able to enjoy something that we really take for granted on a daily basis.

(Nick:  “want to sit in the middle?”)

IVETTE FELICIANO: For weeks before this special performance, Theater Development Fund was already helping Nick Scotti ease into this new experience by making customizable social stories available on its website.

(Annmarie Scotti: Here’s the lobby. Do we walk or do we run? What are we gonna do?

(Nick: walk.)

(Annmarie Scotti: We’re gonna walk, right… )

IVETTE FELICIANO: Even with the changes to the show, Nick had a hard time getting through the first act…but he was allowed to leave the theater as much as he needed to.

IVETTE FELICIANO TO SCOTTI: Is it different than other times?

ANNMARIE SCOTTI: Oh yeah, it’s definitely different because if you were in a regular play you’d be getting kicked out by now…you know, if your kid wasn’t quiet enough. So everyone here is great, all the volunteers have been great with my kids. So, I couldn’t ask for a better day…