Five-year-old Charlie Webb, right, who has Asperger's, meets the cast of Spot’s Birthday Party at the Oxford Playhouse with his sister, Amber, two, and his mother, Tracey. Photograph: Damian Halliwell for the Guardian
For most five-year-old boys, a trip to the cinema is a treat. But for Charlie Webb, who has Asperger's syndrome, it's a sensory overload – and not in a good way. He has finely tuned hearing and hates sudden loud noises: hand-driers and helicopters upset him, so you can imagine how he feels with Dolby Surround Sound. "I don't want to go again," he told his mother, Tracey, after his second and final trip.
Other family outings, along with his father, Dustin, and sister, Amber, two, can be anxiety-inducing. The slightest change to the usual setup – a slide moved, say, or the menu changed – upsets him. Trips to the local park in Oxford are full of everyday social rules that he finds hard to understand, such as queueing and waiting. "When he gets angry, it's like a classic two-year-old's tantrum but on a five-year-old," says Tracey.
So when she heard about a theatre show at the Oxford Playhouse in February of Spot's Birthday Party, aimed at children on the autistic spectrum, she jumped at it. It was a chance to take Charlie along to something stimulating, but not frightening. "I'd never been brave enough to take him before," she says.
The play was a "relaxed performance", which means the theatre turns a blind eye to – indeed actively encourages – potentially disruptive behaviour. It allows children to move around and provides a less frightening environment. Actors, front of house, back-stage crew and box-office staff are prepared for what to expect during the performance, and "visual stories" – simplified information about the play and the theatre – are emailed to parents beforehand.
"The aim is to cater for the full spectrum of autistic behaviour, from profound disability to anxiety," says Kirsty Hoyle, project manager of the relaxed performances project run by the Society of London Theatre and The Prince's Foundation for Children & the Arts. This means anything from children groaning and rocking in their wheelchairs to reacting to the action on stage in an endearingly pantomimic way – "Watch out!" During one show, a child repeatedly shouted "Mango!"
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Booth, H. (2013). Theatre Shows Autistic Children Can Enjoy. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/may/25/theatre-shows-autistic-children. Last accessed 10th June 2013.