A friend of mine posted this on Facebook* and I found it fascinating. “The Lion King,” playing in Boston through October 11, will be doing an “autism-friendly” performance on October 10. From Boston Magazine:
The show is still the same production that we all know and love, but with some slight tweaks in order to create a sensory-friendly and, most-importantly, judgment-free environment. Some of the unique elements include: a reduction of jarring sounds and overall intensity and volume level; the elimination of strobe lights focused on the audience; the addition of a “calming area” for audience members; and trained staff and volunteers to provide real-time support.
“They leave the house lights up so that people can come and go,” [director of state government affairs for Autism Speak Judith] Ursitti says. “That’s a big accommodation that they provide. Many times, people with autism need a sensory break and they need a place to go. The production itself, what you see on the stage, the changes are subtle. It’s mainly sound and lighting changes. The scene with the hyenas in the elephant graveyard where there’s a lot of little geysers shooting up and there lots of light and noise, they only do one little light, and special effects like that are reduced.”
Now that’s science theater! The idea that autistic kids might enjoy plays, but have a hard time coping with the sensory overload and the social rules of theatergoing, is frankly groundbreaking. Until recently–I mean until very recently–we were thinking of autism only in terms deficits in social reasoning. And if autistic people didn’t understand the games people play and the motivations that led them to play those games, what on earth could they possibly get out of going to a show? Increasingly, though, researchers are looking at the autism spectrum in terms of sensory processing. This is clearly the model that the modified “Lion King” is using.
This article in Salon–an excerpt from Gregory Hickok’s book on neurology and cognition–is a heavy read, but does an outstanding job explaining the various controversies in the field. Here he is on the logic of the sensory-overload hypothesis:
This kind of effect—hyper-responsivity leading to avoidance— is observed regularly and uncontroversially in the sensory domain. Autistic individuals often cover their ears when even moderately loud sounds are present in the environment and exhibit other forms of avoidance behavior. As with the rock concert sound system example at the beginning of this chapter, if an autistic person failed to get information out of moderately loud sounds or simply left the room, we wouldn’t say that he or she had a diminished capacity to hear the sound. The response is more readily explained as an increased sensitivity to sensory stimulation. As autistic author Temple Grandin said in a radio interview, “How is a person going to socialize if their ears are so sensitive that just being at a restaurant is like being inside the speaker at a rock ‘n’ roll concert and it’s hurting their ears?” Good question.
One piece of evidence cited for autistics’ supposed lack of concern for other people’s mental states is that autistic people often do not look at faces, either in social situations or in lab experiments. However, what if faces contained too much information for them to focus on?
Also consistent with the alternative, emotional hyperreactivity hypothesis are statements from autistic individuals themselves. Here’s a sample gleaned from a paper covering face processing in autism: It’s painful for me to look at other people’s faces. Other people’s eyes and mouths are especially hard for me to look at.
My lack of eye contact sometimes makes people, especially my teachers and professors, think that I’m not paying attention to them.
—Matthew Ward, student, University of Wisconsin
Eyes are very intense and show emotions. It can feel creepy to be searched with the eyes. Some autistic people don’t even look at the eyes of actors or news reporters on television.
—Jasmine Lee O’Neill, author
For all my life, my brothers and everyone up ’til very recently, have been trying to make me look at them straight in the face. And that is about the hardest thing that I, as an autistic person, can do, because it’s like hypnosis. And you’re looking at each other square in the eye, and it’s very draining.
—Lars Perner, professor, San Diego State University
These are revealing statements for two reasons. First, they provide a clear indication of an intact theory of mind in these individuals (“my lack of eye contact . . . makes people . . . think that . . .”). And second, active avoidance of eye contact provides just as much evidence for sensitivity to the information contained therein as does active engagement of eye contact. If you can’t recognize that there is information in the eyes, why avoid them?
In this piece from the New York Times, a father recounts how Disney movies have enabled him to connect with his autistic son. Owen Suskind’s extreme affinity for Disney movies gave him an emotional vocabulary, a set of images and metaphors and models for being that he could use to interact with the world around him. He learned to read by sussing out the credits.
Owen’s chosen affinity clearly opened a window to myth, fable and legend that Disney lifted and retooled, just as the Grimm Brothers did, from a vast repository of folklore. Countless cultures have told versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” which dates back 2,000 years to the Latin “Cupid and Psyche” and certainly beyond that. These are stories human beings have always told themselves to make their way in the world.
But what draws kids like Owen to these movies is something even more elemental. Walt Disney told his early animators that the characters and the scenes should be so vivid and clear that they could be understood with the sound turned off. Inadvertently, this creates a dream portal for those who struggle with auditory processing, especially, in recent decades, when the films can be rewound and replayed many times.
The latest research that Cornelia and I came across seems to show that a feature of autism is a lack of traditional habituation, or the way we become used to things. Typically, people sort various inputs, keep or discard them and then store those they keep. Our brains thus become accustomed to the familiar. After the third viewing of a good movie, or a 10th viewing of a real favorite, you’ve had your fill. Many autistic people, though, can watch that favorite a hundred times and seemingly feel the same sensations as the first time. While they are soothed by the repetition, they may also be looking for new details and patterns in each viewing, so-called hypersystemizing, a theory that asserts that the repetitive urge underlies special abilities for some of those on the spectrum.
Disney provided raw material, publicly available and ubiquitous, that Owen, with our help, built into a language and a tool kit. I’m sure, with enough creativity and energy, this can be done with any number of interests and disciplines. For some kids, their affinity is for train schedules; for others, it’s maps. While our household may not be typical, with a pair of writerly parents and a fixation on stories — all of which may have accentuated and amplified Owen’s native inclinations — we have no doubt that he shares a basic neurological architecture with people on the autism spectrum everywhere.
The challenge is how to make our example useful to other families and other kids, whatever their burning interest. That’s what Team Owen seems to be talking about. How does this work? Is there a methodology? Can it be translated from anecdote to analysis and be helpful to others in need?
Yes, parents of neurotypical kids, there are children who want to watch “Frozen” over and over again in a way that makes your daughter look like a quitter. Let it go!
From laboratory to stage to family rec room, scientists and artists and parents are using stories and theater to understand the human mind–and using our increasing knowledge of the human mind to tell stories in new ways. Ways that more of us can understand.
This kind of thing excites me, and fills me with great hope.