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Wharton Center to implement sensory-friendly theater performances

September 28, 2017
Wharton Center's new logo, courtesy of Wharton Center.
Wharton Center's new logo, courtesy of Wharton Center. —

MSU’s Wharton Center for Performing Arts will introduce new sensory-friendly performances this season for viewers with autism spectrum disorder and other sensitivity issues.

People on the autism spectrum have a wide range of symptoms; the neurological disorder affects the way people communicate, learn, and interact with others, among several other essential sensory functions.

Bob Hoffman, Wharton Center public relations manager, said that while the center’s goal is to reach out and engage with communities, they have been excluding many people that have sensory ailments.

“I think there was a large population of people that really felt uncomfortable maybe coming to the theater because there weren’t these accommodations for them,” Hoffman said. 

Brad Tobin, Wharton Center coordinator for sensory-friendly performances, said that although the center has gone lengths in regards to putting in place accessibility options for viewers with ailments such as hearing impairments and mobility issues, the Wharton Center needed to consider improving the entire theater experience for certain spectators.

“It’s really just about increasing inclusion and accessibility,” Tobin said. “The theater is really a sensory experience.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, a new case of autism is diagnosed in the United States every 15 minutes, and one in every 68 children in the U.S has some type of autism spectrum disorder.

Wharton Center Executive Director Mike Brand hopes to attract a large group of theater fans affected by this disorder to the Wharton Center with the implementation of these sensory-friendly shows.

“Wharton Center’s mission is to make theater accessible to everyone,” Brand said in a press release. “We are hoping that the entire family can come to Wharton Center to relax and enjoy what we offer in a friendly, welcoming environment.” 

In an effort to create said welcoming environment for viewers with sensitivity issues, the new sensory-friendly performances at Wharton Center will feature lower sound and light levels, omission of potentially startling special effects, and trained volunteers and professionals on hand to assist viewers.

“If you’re on the autism spectrum, some things can be disturbing,” Hoffman said. “For instance, sound levels, lights and noises can be disturbing.” 

This season, Wharton Center’s sensory-friendly showings include Dr. Seuss’s "The Cat in the Hat," "Clementine" and Disney’s, "The Lion King".

Hoffman and the rest of the Wharton Center family hopes to sustain these sensory-friendly performances and continue them past this season, providing families with children on the autism spectrum the full theater experience.

“The plan is to really grow the program,” Hoffman said. “I’m really proud of Wharton Center and our community so far, who’s really embraced it. This is a good thing.” 

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