Sensory-Friendly Performance Provides Meaningful Experience for Students and Families

Heritage Hall’s Performing Arts department has consistently earned accolades for its technically, visually, and musically stunning adaptations of hit musicals such as Beauty and the Beast, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and Starlight Express. Most impressive, however, has been the department’s dedication to making its art more accessible to those on the autism spectrum and their families, partnering in recent years with Oklahoma Autism Network (OAN) to offer sensory-friendly performances of Seussical and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

On October 1, the School’s 2021-22 performing arts season opened with HONK!. In addition to three regular performances, the department once again partnered with OAN to bring a sensory-friendly version to the stage.

According to OAN Director Rene’ Daman, families who have a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty going out in the community and participating in something like a theatrical performance. 

“Children with ASD have difficulty with communication and social interactions and demonstrate repetitive behaviors. Often, they are sensitive to sensory input – sounds and certain lighting – making it hard to go out in public. As a result, families avoid activities such as movies, eating out, and theatre events,” Daman explained. “By offering this event, Heritage Hall provided families an opportunity to experience a musical play in an environment where they felt safe. For many families, this was a first, prompting several of them to drive several hours to attend.” 

Following the performance, parent Kathy Gary observed, “This was our third sensory-friendly musical at Heritage Hall, and we are already looking forward to next time. Everyone did a marvelous job, and HONK! was so fun to watch. It was a great opportunity for our family to enjoy musical theater in a low-stress setting that is a good fit for all of us. Thank you to the cast and crew for finding a beautiful way to include and serve the greater community.”

Commenting on her family’s experience, parent Nikki Weibel said, “This was the first time any of my three children have sat through a full-length musical. My oldest, who is interested in theater, was enamored by everything. My son with autism started the performance with his hands over his ears, as he struggles with loud noises and doesn’t trust a new experience to not suddenly become too loud. However, once he realized it was ‘safe,’ he removed his hands and enjoyed himself. Our entire family had a good time together, and we didn’t feel ‘different.’ 

“We are incredibly grateful to both OK Autism and Heritage Hall for this opportunity. I commend the program director for having the desire to teach his students about compassion, inclusivity, and differently-abled individuals and how a performance catered toward a group like this will feel and look. Bravo to him and the entire talented cast of delightful young people,” concluded Weibel.

Speaking about the department’s partnership with OAN, Heritage Hall Fine Arts Department Chair Jay Ferguson '96 said it has been an incredibly uplifting and rewarding experience for everyone involved. “In our continued effort to grow the appreciation and accessibility of live theatre, the inclusion of such programming welcomes those with sensory sensitivities and other challenges in an environment of fun and understanding. We were thrilled to provide families impacted by autism another opportunity to enjoy the theatre.”

Additionally, the sensory-friendly performance provides performing arts students “an opportunity to truly live the School’s Charger Code – to learn with honor, to lead with courage, and to serve with compassion,” noted Ferguson.

Reflecting on the experience from a performer’s perspective, senior Romello Nicholson said, “Seeing the excitement on the kids’ faces during the performance made this show truly special. My favorite part was meeting and taking pictures with everyone after the show.” 

“I loved it! You could sense how much the audience appreciated being there,” observed senior Molly Norton.

Sophomore Evan Hulse stated, “Helping those with special needs learn and grow has a special place in my heart, so I was ecstatic when I found out we would be doing a show for the Autism Network. Seeing families walk out of that theatre, knowing they got to watch a show with no concerns, made me feel like I made a difference. I will never forget this opportunity or experience.”
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