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Eleanor Dewar: Theatre needs to do more for audiences with autism and sensory issues

Luke Treadaway in Curious Incident at the Apollo Theatre, London (2017). Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg
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Having dyspraxia and autism is not easy. Growing up, battling bullying, anxiety and struggling to read social situations was never fun. However, the theatre allowed me some escape and I am still devoted to it.

But the theatre struggles to cope with someone like me. More than 70,000 people in the UK live with autism and one in 10 has dyspraxia, yet our stories are not being told. As audiences, we are not being accommodated.

Although there does seem to be some glimmers of hope, – with the positive acceptance of the Bush Theatre’s Jellyfish, about a woman with Down’s syndrome encountering first love – in my entire theatre experience I have seen few shows detailing the experiences of people like me.

I was nervous about seeing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and how a two-and-a-half-hour performance could encapsulate my lifetime of social struggles. Instead, however, I found a sensitive family-focused story. Constant repetition of noise and lights gave non-autistic audience members a taste of my daily reality and, although people should not use this as a definite guide to the autistic experience, it is a step in a very positive direction.

The Light in the Piazza is another example, which I saw when it was staged over the summer. Despite not having the same condition as the character Clara, I felt far more emotionally connected to her. It filled my cynical heart with hope that audiences saw someone like me develop a normal, healthy romantic relationship when the prevalent stereotype is of people with learning difficulties being damned to a life of loneliness.

But three stories do not account for the experiences of 1.5 million people with a variety of learning difficulties in this country. Then there is how we are treated as audience members.

Loud music and bright lights may be great artistic touches, but are not at all inclusive of those with sensory issues. I’m not calling for the ban of every flashing light, but informing the audience as we walk to our seats gives people little time to prepare.

Relaxed performances are also great but are mainly focused on children and families. Sensory issues are not just a childhood issue and more needs to be done.

Listening to us is a simple, yet vital, way of moving forward. I was in shock when told by a staff member that they couldn’t at least turn down the deafening noise and almost blinding lights during a production despite other people asking for the same.

Imagine if due to mobility issues, a member of the audience was unable to attend or stay for a show. I would expect there to be massive changes. Likewise, I can’t see why the amazing progress in diversifying people on stage can’t be applied to those off stage.

Invite people to rehearsals or previews to offer advice, or ask the amazing charities who support and represent us daily. Thus, the theatre can become more welcoming for all.

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