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Junie B. Jones and Beyond: How Wharton Center is Leading the Way in Cultivating the Arts for the Needs of a Neurodiverse Community.

The lights go down, the sounds goes up, the curtain is pulled back…ACTION! Actors file out on to the stage as a riveting intro announces their appearance. The crowd is silent in anticipation. The stage lights dim and brighten to set the mood for the current scene. You’re on the edge of your seat…then…suddenly…two rows behind you an outburst occurs that draws your attention away from the show. A mother sits, tightly hugging her 16 year old autistic son. She is trying to calm him as her face turns a darker shade of red every second. Disapproving glances and “shushes” rush their way as the family so desperately tries to calm their sensory overloaded child.

As a mother of two children with varying sensory sensitivities…I get it! I understand the worry that public scrutiny brings. I’ve been there when a hand dryer goes off unexpectedly, or a sudden noise occurs, or any general unexpected change just overloads their minds and a meltdown occurs. I’ve been there when others have looked at me like I should have somehow isolated my child from the world. I’ve seen the look of a lack of understanding of the needs of a neurodiverse person…I’ve been there…and it is a lonely place to be.

While this may not be a familiar situation to you, there are families all over our community that could tell stories like this: Stories of times when their diversity excluded them, stories of opportunities lost because of fear, stories of feeling the strain of the lack of resources to meet their needs, stories of isolation. “An estimated one of every six children is affected by neurological conditions that require treatment, and the incidence appears to be increasing[…]These disorders occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups” (whartoncenter.com/sfp). Like many other communities, we have a significant need for inclusivity and sensory-friendly opportunities in the Greater Lansing area. Our community is diverse in its needs, so why shouldn’t our business practices and approaches be diverse as well?

2018 production of “Clementime” a sensory friendly performance at the Wharton Center Pasant stage Copyright 2018 Michigan State University Board of Trustees

The Greater Lansing region has made it a goal to provide a welcoming experience to all who live here and visit. The Greater Lansing CVB has collaborated with many local businesses and attractions to “provide a supportive and welcoming environment for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental disabilities, sensory processing disorders, and other neurodiverse individuals and their families.” (Lansing.org) Wharton Center is among the leaders in our region for creating programs that bring the arts to our wonderfully diverse community in a way that is safe and supportive. As a parent and a member of this amazing community, I couldn’t be more excited about what is being done to create places where meaningful activities can take place for children and adults with sensory sensitivities.

With the upcoming Sensory-Friendly Performance of Junie B. Jones scheduled to take place on April 28th, 2019 as part of Wharton Center’s Act One Family Series, I was excited to speak to Kelly Stuible-Clark, who is the Manager of Musical Theatre Programs at Wharton Center, and learned about some of the fantastic programs they have in place for our diverse community. Kelly’s education in vocal performance, opera, and musical theatre has allowed her to teach in several different capacities, including being a Teaching Artist for Wharton Center’s Disney Musicals and Schools program (stay tuned for more information about this amazing program). This ultimately opened the door to her current position where she manages several of the programs at Wharton Center’s Institute for Arts and Creativity.

Wharton Center has become a leader in providing sensory-friendly entertainment. Being on a major research campus has its benefits and Kelly shared that Wharton Center has partners both on campus in the special education department as well as representatives from the Mid-Michigan Autism Association that participate and give feedback on how to make the facility as sensory-friendly as possible. They work closely with these partners, do training at a national level, and do research with other theaters that have implemented similar programs. All of this work and research has allowed them become the “trainers” and leaders for others who come to them.

I asked Kelly to walk me through what a sensory-friendly performance of Junie B. Jones (or any of the other SFP’s) would look like at Wharton Center, and was astonished at the amazing work that goes into making these sensory-friendly shows meaningful and appropriate for a neurodiverse community.

“For our SFP shows, and this goes for any of them, there are two parts: we modify the experience and we modify our theater. We modify the experience by keeping the house lights on, lowering the sound levels, working with the production team to remove any bright or flashing lights, sudden light changes, and any sounds that might be very jarring. Normally what we do is have the lights at one level on the stage for the whole production and if there are any lights changes they are very minimal. On the other side of that we modify our theater by relaxing the traditional rules, meaning no one is going to have a problem if you need to stand up, or have to vocalize. We understand if you need to switch seats to get further away from people. Patrons are encouraged to bring in comfort devices like Ipads, snacks or something to drink. We also offer noise cancelling headphones, fidgets, weighted lap blankets…basically all of those traditional sensory tools that bring comfort to patrons when they are in a new space. Sometimes it takes just a few modifications to have a great afternoon with your child, so to be able to turn that around and offer it to families on the scale that we do has been amazing. “

2018 production of “Clementime” a sensory friendly performance at the Wharton Center Pasant stage Copyright 2018 Michigan State University Board of Trustees

In addition to all of these tools, Wharton Center offers alternate spaces to watch the show. The lobby on the second floor is open with activities such as coloring books, puzzles, and other tactile objects. The performance is shown on television screens in these areas so you can continue to enjoy the performance if being in the house with that many people is just too overwhelming. There are also quiet and calm spaces available if patrons really need somewhere to just “check out”. Quiet spaces have low lights, soft music playing, bean bags, even crash pads if someone really needs some help recovering from a meltdown. The calm rooms have black out curtains around the side, have soft music playing, and then some tactile objects, and serve as a way for patrons to step out and calm down for a few minutes.

2016 Michigan State University, Wharton Center

Another very special component of the sensory-friendly performances is the opportunity for community involvement. “All SFP shows have a team of volunteers, we call them our experts, that are occupational therapists, special education teachers, school nurses, basically people who are well versed in working with populations with a variety of special needs. The idea is that this is not just for those on the autism spectrum but those who are low vision or hard of hearing and who find that coming to the SFP show is a little bit more welcoming. What we have found is the sense of community is extraordinary.”

Parents of any special needs child can identify with that need for community. “The idea of welcoming all patrons to the theater in whatever capacity they can attend has been a huge step forward. It is something we are looking to continue to do so that the greater public becomes aware of how many people have sensory processing issues. We are taking the steps to welcome everyone, in any stage of need, to our performances and these SFP performances have been a big first step in creating a safe space for families.”

The exposure to arts at a young age is so important, and to experience the arts without barriers is such amazing progress for our community. “Theater Works, the presenters of Junie B. Jones, does a lot of our children’s and school series shows. They have a great formula of popular books, all about an hour long, are high-quality, high energy, have fun music, and are great for the family. They are really great to work with for sensory-friendly shows and the actors are always excited that a whole new audience can come and see musical theater.”

The Greater Lansing area is quickly becoming a considerable resource for sensory-friendly activities and business experiences. From the Lugnuts, to Impression 5, to the Potter Park Zoo…the list goes on. The Greater Lansing CVB has become something of a hub for all of these local places to connect and find resources to take steps toward becoming more inclusive to the diversity within our community. One exciting thing we spoke about was the big push to create sensory toolkits for facilities that may not be ready to have specific sensory-friendly hours or events, but want to have resources in place for families in need of them.

Providing a space for our community that allows for exposure to the arts while providing appropriate supports brings the benefit of “greater community, civic, and social participation for everyone.” (WhartonCenter.com) If you would like to become more involved in helping us move forward with becoming a more “all inclusive” community, there are many ways you can get involved. One great way to start is by supporting through volunteer efforts or through financial support of the program. You can get more information about that here or by contacting Kelly Stuible-Clark directly at stuible3@whartoncenter.com.

Junie B. Jones is going to be a fantastic show and I am excited to be able to be a part of creating a culture that cares for, respects, and works alongside our very diverse and amazing community of varying special needs. We would love to see you at the April 28th sensory-friendly performance of Junie B. Jones. Tickets are only $8 and you can buy them online or by calling 1-800WHARTON. Come and join us and show your support for our wonderful, diverse community.

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