The act of bringing young children to a theatrical performance can sometimes leave parents feeling like stage managers themselves.
Act 1: Gauge the children’s interest in the show’s content, buy the tickets, and teach them the rules and expected behavior when in a public theater space.
Act 2: Make sure everyone is well-rested, well-fed, and properly dressed so as not to get restless, uncomfortable, or complainy mid-show.
Intermission: Don’t forget the bathroom breaks and reminders not to run up the aisle to get to the bathroom!
Act 3: Once again remind the children the proper behavior when in a public theater since little Julian has been kicking the seat in front of him the whole time, little Mia bumped into someone’s rear end while running toward the bathroom, and little Nathan hummed to himself throughout the entire first half of the show much to the displeasure of the eye-rolling woman behind him.
Sounds easy right? Now combine this whirlwind production with the added factor that little Nathan is on the Autism Spectrum and you’ve got one stressed out parent apprehensive of whether going to the show is possible at all.
Luckily, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts has considered this parental plight and in doing so has collaborated with the Chicago Children’s Theater to bring Red Kite performances to our area for the past three years. Red Kite performances are multi-sensory adventures designed specifically for children on the autism spectrum and their caregivers.
This year’s show, Red Kite Treasure Adventure, was inspired by characters from Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers. Wanting to see what this interesting initiative was all about, our very own speech language pathologists (SLPs), Shaun Stephens and Karen Rodgers, went to check it out. Read on for the unique perception of these two professionals trained in speech language pathology and the benefits of the Red Kite show to children with sensory-sensitivities.
Karen and Shaun’s Take
As Pediatric Speech Language Pathologists, we are aware of the relationship between an individual’s communication skills and his or her processing of sensory information. The foundation of communication is self regulation: the ability to keep oneself calm in order to maintain attention and engagement. Engagement is the foundation for interaction and social communication. It is more than simply responding to questions: it is a child’s understanding of why it even matters to attend to other people and respond to them. Children with autism often have difficulty processing sensory information, attending to auditory and nonverbal communication, and therefore have difficulty being “engaged” during typical communication events: everything from having a book read to them to attending a theater performance.
Last week, however, children with autism were invited to a theater performance geared especially toward them. We had the honor of attending as well! The FlynnSpace Theater was hosting the Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Red Kite Treasure Adventure. We had no idea what to expect and wondered, “How could they adapt their performance to meet a broad spectrum of individual needs? How were they going to keep an audience with a wide range of language and sensory integration skills engaged?”
When the show actually started, we were amazed! This team of incredible actors, writers, and director captured not only the attention of their audience, but their participation and hearts as well. A small group of children with autism (usually 12 or fewer) were in the audience, and the performers used a multisensory approach to engagement using a rich narrative supported by visuals and judicious repetition of some of the language. They built a visual schedule into the set of the performance, and used a variety of multisensory props, set pieces, and activities, including:
- Tactile (Touch): The show used props made of feather boas, beads, and simulated wind.
- Auditory: Specially composed music, performed live, was integrated with the narrative and provided opportunities for audience participation.
- Visual: There were projections of a fireworks display, careful lighting design, and outsized affect (facial expressions) of the actors portraying emotions and supporting the language.
- Proprioceptive/ Vestibular: The children were invited to climb through a tunnel, march up a mountain, and follow a Chinese dragon, which provided movement, physical engagement, and a sense of where their body was in the environment.
The Red Kite production also addressed the following social cognition and communication skills:
- Problem-solving skills: looking for clues, brainstorming ideas to fix things, and negotiating.
- Perspective taking skills: What is dad going to think when he sees the broken vase? What can we tell Dad about the broken vase?”
- Listening Comprehension: “Wait: why did we come here in the first place?”
- Empathy: What should we do for someone who is exhausted, or sad, or scared?
- Truth-telling in high pressure situations.
The performance ended with a group photo. The combination of an engaging narrative, told by a small company of skilled actors, accompanied by thoughtfully composed and performed songs resulted in a truly engaging live-theater experience for a group of children who are often left out of such experiences. Look out Hamilton, here comes Red Kite!
Shaun Stephens, M.S., CCC-SLP
Shaun Stephens, M.S., CCC-SLP, Evaluator and Instructor, provides speech and language services in the areas of social cognition, fluency (stuttering), motor speech, language, and alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) to learners of all ages. His areas of expertise include social communication, language impairments, speech fluency disorders and discourse impairments in children and adults. Prior to joining the Stern Center, Shaun worked extensively in schools, medical centers, skilled nursing facilities and in private practice.
He received his Master of Science degree from the University of Vermont. Currently, Shaun is enrolled in the Ph.D. program at UVM through the College of Medicine’s Clinical and Translational Science program, where he is researching discourse impairments in individuals with traumatic brain injury. Published articles include:
- Prefrontal cortical activity during discourse processing: An observational fNIRS study, Topics in Language Disorders, 36(1): 65-79.
- Discourse characteristics and neurovascular activation in four genres. In submission, Journal of Neurolinguistics.
He lives in central Vermont and enjoys hiking, biking, playing fiddle, and cooking with his family.