Arts for All - Sensory-Friendly Theater, Visual Arts & Other Family Entertainment

Joan Goodchild

For children with autism or sensory processing disorder, some common forms of entertainment may be overwhelming. A trip to the movie theater might be a bit too loud, or dark, for sensitive eyes and ears. Bright lights and singing in live theater could be frightening for some kids.

That’s where sensory-friendly entertainment comes in, and many entertainment venues are increasingly offering opportunities for kids with disabilities to enjoy some fun in an atmosphere that has their unique needs in mind.

“A lot of sensory-friendly theater has to do with creating a culture of acceptance,” said Troy Siebels, president and CEO of the Hanover Theater for the Performing Arts in Worcester. “It’s designed to be comfortable and there’s an understanding that attendees can act in any way and still feel appropriate. I think creating an environment of acceptance helps everyone enjoy it.”

Siebels and his team at the Hanover have put on a sensory-friendly showing of their live play A Christmas Carol annually for the last several years. The theater often partners with other area organizations, such as the New England Chapter of Autism Speaks, Theatre Development Fund, HMEA's Autism Resource Central and VSA Massachusetts to offer the performance.

Described as a “supportive and judgment-free environment,” accommodations of support include a quiet area if individuals and families need a break, and trained staff and volunteers to assist with other needs. 

Because it is a performance put on in-house, the theater has the flexibility to change some elements for the special showing, explained Siebels.

“We have the house lights at a glow instead of turning them all the way down,” he said. “We tone down some of the most startling sounds and at the start we introduce the scariest characters. For example, Jacob Marley comes out and introduces himself.”

The modifications, said Siebels, are a way for the audience be 100 percent into the narrative, without being startled.

“The cast loves doing this,” he said. “They feel it’s an important thing to do and a rewarding thing to do.”

Fine arts like theater, film, music and visual arts are a wonderful outlet for self-exploration, creativity and self-expression. Experiences in the arts play a valuable role in helping a person to participate fully in the community and in society as a whole, but introducing the arts into life experience of a child with autism can be daunting. Still, there are many venues around the Bay State where families with children with autism can find sensory-friendly arts experiences and other entertainment.

Beyond the Spectrum is program through the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that is specially designed for children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The program meets on select Saturdays and combine gallery exploration with an art-making activity. Classes offered for 8 to 12-year-olds feature a structured gallery tour, followed by a creative art-making workshop. For teens, each class focuses on specific art topics and incorporates discussion, critical inquiry, and sketching in the galleries. Students then work independently on a project with guidance from an experienced instructor.

Several Cinemagic movie theaters, including those in Salisbury and Sturbridge, offer sensory and family-friendly showings so small children, or those who have autism or SPD, can enjoy their movie going experience in a safe and accepting environment. As the web site explains, the theater keeps the auditorium lights turned slightly up and the sound turned slightly down. Because some have strict, special dietary needs, families are permitted to bring their own gluten-free, casein-free snacks from home. 

“Additionally, audience members are welcome to get up and dance, walk, shout or sing - in other words, our no talking policy will not be enforced unless the audience safety is in question,” the site notes.

Many Massachusetts museums have sensory-friendly offerings, as well. Morningstar Access at Boston Children’s Museum is a chance for children with special needs to visit the museum at a time when there are only a few other visitors. The museum has a limit of 100 guests during this time so kids can explore with less concern about infections and large crowds. At the Discovery Museum in Acton, families with children with an ASD, hearing loss, or vision loss, can enjoy free admission during a monthly program, Especially for Me, where capacity is limited to families dealing with developmental challenges. The program increases access to museum exhibits and provide an opportunity for families to network with one another in an understanding environment.  

There is also a sensory-friendly evening at Southwick Zoo in Mendon. And Altitude Trampoline Parks around the state offer sensory-friendly Saturdays with less crowds, lower music and inflatable toys.

This is just a small sampling of the opportunities out there for families looking for a different setting to enjoy time out with kids who need special accommodations. It is worth asking your local entertainment venues if they offer sensory-free hours or events. If they don’t, they might even be encouraged to start one if you ask!