The Lion King gets sensory-friendly

By Kelly Heitlauf
Thursday, March 14, 2019
Lion King Sensory-Friendly Performance

Photos by Christopher Nelson Photography

In January, Seattle Theatre Group (STG) hosted its first-ever, sensory-friendly performance of Disney’s The Lion King at the Paramount Theatre, with Premera Blue Cross as a sponsor.

Many parents of children with autism or other developmental disorders don't attend the theater due to fear of disrupting the experience of other theater-goers or due to financial constraints. This sensory-friendly performance created a supportive and judgment-free environment for a range of sensory needs at affordable prices.

What is a sensory-friendly performance?
To prepare for this special event, STG sent all attendees a downloadable Social Story—a social learning tool for children with autism to prepare for social encounters.

The story included pictures of the theater and the production of the show to help individuals and families prepare. This included a Character Guide with photos and information about cast members, as well as a guide for attending the show to help reduce the anxieties of visiting a new space.

Sitting still and quiet can be hard for an autistic child or adult, so at the theatre, guests were greeted with activity zones and fidget items upon entering. There were quiet spaces with noise-canceling headphones and break areas staffed by autism specialists for anyone needing to leave their seat during the show. The production crew adjusted the lighting and sound, and guests were allowed to have food and drinks in their seats. From the moment guests entered the theatre, they were made to feel welcome and comfortable.

While the tickets to this show were significantly reduced to as low as $15 to make it more accessible for all families, through Premera’s sponsorship of the show, we were able to invite Premera members to attend at no cost to them. Invitations were sent to Microsoft and Amazon employees who utilize their Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy benefits. About 250 of our members were able to attend.

Here are a few of the notes we got from them afterward.
"This was such a huge gift for our family. It’s the very first time we were able to take our 10-year-old daughter to a show. She has autism and is severely impacted. It’s not a family outing we thought would ever happen, and we feel very appreciative of Premera sponsoring. She loves music and seemed to enjoy the show. And just getting her out in the community is often difficult. So the thoughtful accommodations really enabled us to participate."

"I wanted to let you know how much we enjoyed the Lion King performance – it was great! My 13-year-old daughter continues to talk about it to this day. The performance team did a splendid job of toning down the performance. The support team was very helpful in helping us to get seated and provide us with sensory toys, and the experience helped to teach my daughter empathy for other children with more serious conditions than hers. It was an amazing day for us as a family. I sincerely hope you are able to host future events like this – we will for sure want to attend. Again, thank you for this opportunity."

"I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to take my family to this musical. My 8-year-old twin daughters are diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and so having an accommodating, supportive environment is very very instrumental in giving them these type of experiences. Typically I would not purchase tickets of this value/price because of the risk factors (being scared and needing to leave, not being able to have comfortable support like toys/food/talking)… and so it’s very generous to have this benefit. I would greatly appreciate future opportunities for these type of events/shows."

"It was absolutely amazing! Super appreciate the opportunity to have an inclusive, sensory, friendly session of The Lion King so that my family could enjoy this beautiful Broadway show, without worrying about how my son would handle it and how others will handle my son's reactions. We will definitely appreciate similar opportunities in the future."

Kelly Heitlauf manages events & sponsorships at Premera Blue Cross.

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