A visit to the theatre or museum can be an exciting outing, but there are also challenges in such different environments. Here is a short guide on how school staff can make the experience more comfortable and rewarding for a student with autism. You might find it useful to read our information on what is autism?
Going to the theatre
Before your visit
- Tell the theatre when you are booking that you have someone in your party with autism. If there is a chance that you may need some time away from the show during the performance ask for an aisle seat so you can leave the theatre without disturbing other audience members too much.
- Check the theatre’s website to see if there is anything there which could help you to prepare for your visit, such as social stories, or photographs of the inside of the theatre.
- Ask the theatre if they know about our guide to making theatres more autism-friendly. You could email or print it for them ahead of the date of the show so they have time to make any changes.
- If you would like to visit the building before you go to the show, contact the theatre and ask to arrange a convenient time.
- Ask if there is a quiet area at the theatre that you can use if necessary.
- Sensory issues are what cause the most problems for someone with autism attending the theatre. This can range to loudness of sound/music, darkness within the auditorium, sudden noises within the performance, strobe lighting, smells and sound effects. If you have a student who is on the spectrum it may be advisable to contact the theatre manager to ask what is in the show so you can prepare your student and staff before your visit.
On the day
- If you use tools to help with sensory issues (eg ear defenders, or fiddle toys) remember to bring them with you.
- If you have an autism awareness card take it with you so you can quietly say to a neighbour why you or the person you are with may be acting a little differently. When you arrive if you feel that your seat is not suitable, ask a member of staff if you can sit somewhere else, and explain why (if the show is full this may not be possible so it’s always advisable to ask about seating when booking). If you need assistance talk to an usher and ask for help. Ushers know when the noisy and quiet parts of the show are and will be able to tell you the best time to leave or return to the auditorium without disturbing others.
• If you or the person you are with will need to go to the toilet, try to leave just before the interval starts, as toilets often get very busy during the interval. You may need to tell the usher you plan to do this before the show starts. They will be able to tell you when the interval will start and what stage in the performance would be a good time to leave the auditorium without disturbing other people.
• During the show if the student becomes overwhelmed due to a sensory overload please use the quiet area to help relax before re-entering the auditorium
What theatres can do
We believe that theatres can and should make reasonable adjustments to enable people with autism to enjoy their theatre experience.
On some occasions a person with autism might make excessive noise which affects other people’s enjoyment of a performance. In order to meet the needs of those with autism and those of other audience members we recommend that:
- all staff attend an autism awareness session
- suitable seating is provided, for example at the end of an aisle to enable a person to move away if needed with minimal intrusion to other audience members
- a quiet room is available nearby
- the person with autism, their parent or carer is asked if they need assistance or adjustments.
- visual supports are provided to explain what behaviour is expected at the theatre. This should explain that individuals may be asked to leave if they make an excessive amount of noise
- there is a policy in place that includes staff giving the individual a warning that if excessive sound continues they will be asked to leave.
Theatre staff should only ask people to leave if the reasonable measures are not improving the situation.
What staff can do
- Keep sentences short and to the point. "Would you like me to show you where the toilet is?" could be shortened to, "Toilet?"
- recognise that a person with autism might have trouble understanding some jokes, sarcasm or common turns of phrase. Sayings like "It's raining cats and dogs" could be really confusing
- some people with autism enjoy talking about their favourite topic. If you’d like to, and if you have time, listen. You may need to set a time limit on this, or deliberately change the subject
- if a person is feeling anxious, ask if there’s anything you can do to help, or suggest a quiet room where they can go to relax
- understand that ‘odd’ behaviour is often the result of a person with autism trying to understand the world, take in information or cope with sensory issues. Don’t let it put you off getting to know someone with autism
- a sympathetic, understanding and friendly attitude from the staff can be very reassuring and welcoming
- if a person with autism becomes distressed or agitated during a performance consider asking people in the neighbouring seats to move, as trying to move someone with autism when they are feeling particularly anxious could cause more problems.
Ask visitors to let you know ahead of their visit if they have a disability. There should be space on the form for people to be able to say if they do have a disability which you should know about, and what the disability is.
Say that you will do what you can to make their theatre visit as pleasant as possible.
If you have already located a good quiet room you may like to let the visitor know that it exists to give them the choice of booking a seat nearer to that area.
Before the visit
People with autism often get anxious about going to new places. An introduction to the theatre, ahead of the performance, can help to manage this anxiety. This could be the day before or earlier on the day of the performance. Be open to suggestion and what works for both parties.
You could take photos of the outside and inside of the building for families and schools to look at before the visit. These could be available on your website.
Explain what visitors can expect from a trip to the theatre, and what quiet rooms or facilities are available. Have a person who can be the dedicated point of contact for visitors who have additional questions or needs. This will make it easier for those visitors to get a quick answer to their questions before their visit.
Have some cards ready at the box office to indicate that the visitor has autism. These may be just a plain coloured card. The parent or carer can collect one of these and hand it to the usher near to where they are sitting to alert them to the fact that they should make allowances if needed. There are NAS Autism Alert and Autism Info cards which some people will use.
Ensure that your staff know where they can direct people to a quiet room or space. These areas need to be easily accessible from where the person is sitting. Consider any lighting, smells or distractions in that area which might affect someone with autism (for example the smell of foyer food).
If a parent or carer is on their own with someone with a disability check to see if they would like to have a drink or ice cream brought to them, as it may be too difficult for them to get to the vendor.
Cast and crew
Front of House should alert the company manager so that they can tell the cast and crew that some attendees coming to the performance have autism and, if possible, where they will be sitting.
Our Cultural Access Manager can offer training and consultancy on how to make your theatre autism friendly and what adjustments are needed to your performance. Please contact email@example.com for further information.
Last reviewed: 22 January 2016