This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
By Jeremy Reynolds
Jennifer Bruno doesn’t take her daughter Cassie to many public events. She gets tired of people gawking.
“You can’t offend us if you just talk to us, but most people just stare,” she said.
Cassie, 14, is visually impaired and autistic. Sometimes she yells loudly, when she’s overwhelmed or tired. While Ms. Bruno keeps Cassie’s life social and active with events specifically for children with autism, it can be stressful to take her to public, family-friendly occasions that parents of neurotypical kids wouldn’t think twice about.
Events like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Holiday Pops Concert, one of the best attended holiday concerts in the city, aren’t on the agenda. At least, not until this year. On Saturday, the symphony hosted its first sensory-friendly Holiday Pops, transforming Heinz Hall into an inclusive, welcoming space for an afternoon of music for the whole family.
“Coming here hasn’t been stressful — this is wonderful,” Ms. Bruno said at the concert while Cassie vocalized to pre-show Christmas tunes. “I absolutely will be back.”
Typically kids, adolescents and adults with autism take in information differently than their neurotypical peers. They can be easily overwhelmed by the senses, noises, visuals and smells. The loud music and the crowds and flashing lights at traditional concerts can overwhelm someone with autism such that they need to leave.
At Saturday’s concert, narrated and directed by conductor Daniel Meyer, kids roamed the aisles, clapping when they felt like it or vocalizing to sing with the music. The lights stayed up to help with focus, some of the louder moments in the holiday selections were toned down. The symphony provided quiet spaces for listeners who needed a break from the noise, and the PSO provided pre-concert activities like singalongs and fidget tables to help ease folks into the experience.
There were curbside assistance for listeners with mobility issues; hearing aids and an American Sign Language interpreter for those with auditory issues; Braille programs for the visually impaired; and several dozen volunteers on hand to assist families.
In one hallway, musician James Rodgers sat softly demonstrating the mechanics of a bassoon to children and parents. The soft sounds of a cello floated down from the balcony, where Santa Claus hung out to take photos after the performance.
The Pittsburgh Symphony’s foray into sensory friendly programming isn’t new, as the orchestra rolled out its first program in 2015 after working for more than two years with community organizations such as Welsey Family Services, Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind and many others.
Occupational therapist Roger Ideishi, also a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, also helped design the concert format, and now the orchestra programs one sensory friendly experience a season. Saturday’s concert drew around 1,200 people to Heinz Hall.
This year, the symphony has been working to adapt pops programming like its Disney pops concert in March and the December Holiday Pops concerts to provide the same opportunity to kids with mental, physical or social disorders as their neurotypical peers enjoy. Orchestras around the country ranging from the Boston Pops and the Nashville Symphony to the Minnesota Orchestra and the Richmond Symphony are adapting Pittsburgh’s sensory friendly experience for their own communities.
“About 14% of the population has some kind of visible or invisible disability,” said Suzanne Perrino, senior vice president of learning and community engagement at the Pittsburgh Symphony.
That’s more than 40,000 people in Pittsburgh alone. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 59 children will be diagnosed with autism.
“We heard that we’re not currently reaching this audience, that families can’t attend as a unit and they leave kids with disabilities at home. We wanted to offer something to change that,” Ms. Perrino said.
She explained that “sensory friendly” means focusing first on families and second on welcoming anyone who’s worried about being judged for reacting to the music in a different way.
Families started wandering into Heinz Hall about an hour before the 2:30 p.m. concert began, familiarizing themselves with the facilities, learning exit routes, checking to see if their children wanted to experience the concert or whether the space might be overwhelming that day.
Many listeners seemed excited and beamed throughout the performance, singing along with the symphony during Christmas carols and waving cheerfully at Santa when he jollied himself onto the stage. Others seemed a bit overwhelmed, and some parents would leave the concert and return or head home a bit early. The symphony offered a full refund to any family who couldn’t stay, no questions asked.
“This is like therapy for us parents,” said Amy Hart, mother of Sophie, 10, before the concert began. “Normally everybody just stares at us. Here, everybody gets it.”
Ms. Hart and Ms. Bruno are friends, and they’re both clients of Wesley Family Services, which began sponsoring the PSO’s sensory friendly performances this year. Wesley provided training to the orchestra staff, ushers, box office and musicians earlier this year to prepare everyone for the performance. Wesley Family Services also offers a creative arts therapy program, which Ms. Bruno credits for helping Cassie to begin vocalizing.
“Cassie’s got some pipes!” Ms. Hart said.
Another concert attendee, Garrett Willner, said he was thrilled to be hearing the orchestra. Mr. Willner, 20, has autism, and he said he loved playing the piano, particularly Journey covers and tunes by The Beatles.
“I’m so excited for the Christmas carols,” Mr. Willner said, fluttering his hands lightly in anticipation.
Pittsburgh has demonstrated a progressive approach to providing inclusive spaces for the disability community.
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust staged a sensory friendly version of Disney’s “The Lion King” in September. (Mr. Willner attended — he said he enjoyed it.) The Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, The Andy Warhol Museum and others offer sensory friendly variants of some of their programming.
Also, Pittsburgh International Airport is one of only a handful of airports around the world to offer a sensory friendly room to ease the difficulty of traveling for families. Inspired by an airport employee’s heartfelt letter suggesting that the airport provide a space for traveling families with autism or other special needs, Presley’s Place opened earlier this year.
Ms. Perrino said the orchestra is working to incorporate universal design practices in the rest of its programming. Universal design is about creating an environment that can be accessed and understood and enjoyed by as many people as possible regardless of their age or abilities. Since the orchestra began its foray into creating sensory friendly experiences, Ms. Perrino said, the education and community programs and pops programs are incorporating some of the changes.
At the moment, the PSO only programs one sensory friendly concert per season, but that may increase in the coming years as the program continues to evolve based on community feedback.
“We want this to become a new tradition,” Ms. Perrino said.
And as for Ms. Bruno and Mr. Hart, they said they and many parents welcome people speaking to them in public and asking questions.
“You really can’t offend us,” said Ms. Bruno, who raised more than $23,000 for the Team Cassie Fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation to raise awareness, acceptance and inclusion for children with autism.
“But please don’t stare — offer to help if something seems to be going wrong. Ask us questions. Come say hello!” she said.