Why the need for autism-friendly/relaxed performances

In this article, Heather Wildsmith, Cultural Access Manager at the National Autistic Society (NAS), who has recently worked as advisor on The Lion King autism-friendly performances, explains the need for relaxed shows and offers some tips on how to achieve this.

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Author: Heather Wildsmith

Why the need for autism-friendly/relaxed performances?

In 2011 the National Autistic Society partnered with stakeholders from the theatre to hold a ‘Theatre and Autism - An Inspiration Day’ for the theatre industry. The event was aimed to achieve long-lasting cultural change and to build on the great work which had already existed within the UK theatre industry.

Autistic people can find a visit to live theatre very stressful; sensory difficulties mean they can feel so overloaded that they are unable to sit through a performance. They can also find it very difficult to sit still and quietly for the length of the performance, which means that families are afraid of taking their child in case they upset others, so they tend to not go. If their experience of theatre is a very negative one, then they are unlikely to want to try again.  Building in slight adjustments to shows and offering them as an autism-friendly/relaxed performance enables a new audience to start enjoying live theatre.  

Families have told us that they had stopped going out as a family unit because it can be too stressful, so being able to go along together to watch a show has been a fantastic experience for the whole family.  They feel part of the general crowd rather than feeling the odd ones out.  They enjoy the fact that they do not have to apologise for or explain their child’s different behaviour.  For a couple of hours, as one parent put it, ‘they feel like they are part of the tide and not swimming against it’.

For those working within the industry, these special days can give the front of house staff more confidence in how to deal with their autistic customers and families.  This helps them in the general performances when an autistic person makes an involuntary noise and upsets other customers sitting near them.

Over the past four years, what is on offer for autistic people in the industry has improved a lot, but it is still very patchy. Christmas pantomimes have increased year on year with more theatres coming on board to offer an autism-friendly/relaxed show.  

Companies and theatre staff who have been involved in one of these shows have loved taking part and can see the benefits to all. Often they think that more adjustments will be needed than are necessary. However, we make as few adjustments as possible in order to keep the show the same.

Feedback shows that there is still too much emphasis on London, and families would love touring companies to consider offering an autism-friendly/relaxed performance. With the prevalence rate of autism being 1:100, and with each person having a family circle, there is a new audience to be developed for any region of the UK.  

If autistic people have a good experience at an autism-friendly/relaxed performance, it may open the door for them to attend a general show. Others will always need an adjusted show because of sensory overload.

To put on an autism friendly/relaxed show, not only do you need to look at what adjustments are made to the show, but all staff, cast and crew involved must be given some basic understanding of what autism is. 
The theatre staff need to know how to deal with their autistic customers so that they can offer good customer service and have no unnecessary fear preventing them from doing their job well.  

The cast need to understand how this audience will be different to the general audience so that they are able to concentrate on their role and not be taken unawares by an unexpected reaction from the audience. This helps them also in general shows when there may be an autistic member of the audience making an involuntary noise or movement.

What theatres can do    

The National Autistic Society has written a guide for theatre professionals; here are some of their suggestions:

We believe that theatres can and should make reasonable adjustments to enable people with autism to enjoy their theatre experience.

On some occasions an autistic person might make excessive noise which affects other people’s enjoyment of a performance. In order to meet the needs of autistic people 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 autistic person, 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.

To find out more about training and consultancy on providing autism-friendly/relaxed performances, contact Heather Wildsmith at

Further reading:

The National Autistic Society’s general guide for theatre professionals.    

The National Autistic Society: the sensory world of autism

A moving personal account.

Review from a parent and journalist.

Image by Helen Maybanks

Date added: 27 January 2016