One thing that you might not know about me is that I’m a show-tunes, theatre-loving geek. And since I live in New York City, it’s pretty easy for me to get my Broadway fix. It’s always been my dream that my children will share this love of seeing live performances with me. Fiona has already been to see two Broadway shows with me (Annie and Matilda) – but Quentin has yet to see any. He’s just not ready, nor would he enjoy the idea of having to sit still for several hours. But I have great hopes that we can one day attend one of the performances sponsored by TDF’s Autism Theatre Initiative. These carefully curated events make it easy for people with autism to enjoy shows by muting loud sounds, not dimming the lights all the way down, providing quiet spaces to take a break in throughout the theatre, and offering online social stories that make the experience predictable. They spend a lot of time training the theatre staff, to ensure that all families with sensory needs are happy and comfortable.
Like any typical red-blooded American boys (generously aided and abetted by two nerds for parents), our 6- and 7- year old sons are obsessed with superheroes. They have a box full of various action figures. They wear superhero logos on their t-shirts, pajamas and underwear. We have bookshelves in their room collapsing under the ponderous weight of comic books and graphic novels. They collect superhero Pez dispensers, and we bake bat-signal shaped cookies for classroom parties. We even play a game on the walk to school every day about alternate identities, and try to stump each other: Tony Stark? “Ironman!” Peter Parker? “Spider-Man!” Clark Kent? “Superman!” For Halloween, our older son donned an exaggerated muscled Spider-Man costume for two years in a row (albeit without the mask), while his little brother preferred to be the strong, silent type, gliding around our neighborhood as Batman.
So yes, we’re a proud family of raving comic book nerds, and we were over-the-moon excited when TDF announced in August the next autism-friendly Broadway show on November 16th would be “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” We had wanted to see it with the boys for a really long time. Other friends who saw it raved about a big, bold, spectacular, rock show. It’s Spider-Man! With high-flying aerial stunts! And webs! And explosions! And oh-my-God, even a campy J. Jonah Jameson and Green Goblin!
But every time we talked about getting tickets and having a special family night out on Broadway, we kept coming back to consideration for the rest of the audience. Broadway shows are not cheap, even in the least-expensive balcony seats, and we could only imagine that our son’s predictably excited reactions would probably be very disruptive to someone sitting next to us (to put it mildly).
Our older son was diagnosed with ASD when he was about two years old. We consider ourselves fortunate that his particular flavor of this crazy spectrum is mild and manageable, all things considered. At best, he’s quirky and effusive. At worse, he’s impulsive and obsessive. We knew he would not be able to stay seated, that he would probably jump up, flap, or need to talk and exclaim about what he was seeing on the stage. In other words, he was the perfect target audience for this special showing of Spider-Man on Broadway.
Upon arriving at the theatre, we were struck at how amazingly polite and happy everyone was. I read that the theatre staff had all undergone special sensitivity training prior to the event, and it really showed. My son asked the first usher he saw, “Sir? Will there be Lego in this movie?” The usher looked confused for just a split second at this complete non-sequitur, but then with a huge beaming smile, enthused, “No, this will be even better than a Lego movie!”
The ushers and the staff, all identified in red t-shirts, seemed so genuinely excited to be hosting autism families. They showed people to their seats, they directed us to velvet-covered boosters for the kids, pointed out quiet areas where we could retreat, if necessary, and they even helpfully handed out earplugs and various sensory “fidgets” for the kids to hold and stretch to keep their hands busy. My son had brought his own fidget – a paper cut-out he had made of Spider-Man, swinging on a piece of broken rubber band – but he was happy to augment his toy with a stretchy ball from the collection.
When the light finally dimmed and the show started, my boys were mesmerized! The story starts with Peter Parker giving a presentation to his high school class about Arachne challenging Athena to a weaving contest, and ultimately, being turned into a spider. Peter is also victimized and bullied by some thugs in his class. At this point, my son loudly proclaimed the slogans from Cartoon Network, “Oh no! He needs to speak up to stop bullying!” (The family sitting next to me overheard, and laughed at his enthusiasm.) My son slightly freaked out during the scene with the radioactive spider at OsCorp that lowered from a thread and bit Peter. He was afraid the spider was going to be loose in the theatre after that, even though I reassured him it was just a puppet. However, he was thrilled by the next musical number, which involved Peter waking up the next morning with super powers, and literally bouncing off the walls. (My boys have been singing that song now for days. We’re definitely going to have to get the CD from the show to play in the car.)
The absolute highlight, though, was the first time Spider-Man swung out over the audience, and landed almost in front of us on the balcony. My son stood up and shrieked at the top of his lungs with sheer joy: “It’s Spider-Man! It’s really Spider-Man! SPIDER-MAN!”
We were so thrilled to be able to share this moment with him. No need to shush, look around and be embarrassed, or try to make him make him settle down. The look of happiness on his face at seeing Spider-Man was well worth the price of admission. Huge thanks to TDF for this special showing. My boys have requested a Broadway musical production of Batman next, but I’ve suggested maybe we should see The Lion King instead.