Neurodiversity through music

An $80,000 grant helped the VSO provide sensory-friendly productions

Art is one way that people of all ages and abilities can connect to one another and can experience the world. For many however, performance events such as those that take place in theaters are not accessible for those with varying disabilities, especially those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  

Partnering with the Ferguson Center for the Arts, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra (VSO) debuted its first “Open Doors: A Sensory Friendly Concert.” This concert was made possible by the American Orchestras’ Futures Fund grant given to the VSO by the League of American Orchestras. According to The Virginia Pilot’s Amy Poulter, the  $80,000 grant will help the VSO  become more sensory-friendly and accessible to their patrons. The program’s format was created through a collaboration with multiple community organizations that strive to promote inclusivity and bring the arts to people with autism. Such organizations included the Faison Center,  Families of Autistic Children in Tidewater (F.A.C.T.), The Musical Autist, Arts Inclusion Company and the Faith Inclusion Network of Hampton Roads. This sensory-friendly concert is  to be the first in a series of similar concerts that promote inclusivity among the arts and within the autistic community. 

Additionally, in its collaboration with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, the Ferguson Center for the Arts has been certified as a KultureCity Inclusive venue. KultureCity is an organization working to increase awareness of and create acceptance of individuals with autism. The organization has even created an app that allows for easy discovery of all KultureCity Sensory Inclusive certified locations around the world, but primarily in the United States. 

The entire concert experience was designed to be family friendly, educational and inclusive from the moment you walk through the doors of the Ferguson Center. Before the theater doors opened, concert go-ers were invited to partake in multiple activities to occupy the time before the show began. Such activities included coloring a piece of a puzzle that would be assembled and displayed after the show and having the opportunity to meet with VSO musicians, touch and play their instruments and learn about what the instrument was and how it worked. In addition to activities before the performance, VSO members were offering noise reducing headphones for those with noise sensitivities, as well as “squeezy stars,” star shaped stress balls for fidgeting and tactile stimming. Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviors, is a behavior characteristic of those with autism and other developmental disorders and challenges as a response to overstimulation or under-stimulation of the senses. For many, stimming is a way to calm down, express emotions or react to overwhelming situations, and it include actions such as rocking back and forth, opening and closing one’s hands or shouting.  

The concert itself began with a warm welcome, a reminder that this was an accepting and inclusive space and an invitation to feel free to move around during the concert and change seats if they “weren’t comfy.” During the show, the house lights were kept dim and both Ferguson Center and VSO staff stayed attentive to the needs of the audience, even bringing headphones to patrons who were becoming bothered by the volume of the music but still wanted to enjoy the performance. Each piece began with the conductor introducing the selection, teaching a little bit about the instrumental sections, musical terms and having the featured instrumental section stand up and wave. During each song, images that illustrated the piece being played were projected behind the orchestra. In total, the entire concert was a mere 45 minutes long. The time duration for each piece was printed in the program, a detail that many would not think would be important but is very helpful to both individuals with autism and their caregivers.

The entire orchestra performance experience seemed to be very well received, and it was evident that those who attended the event were grateful for the opportunity to attend a show that they otherwise would not have been able to. Hopefully through the other concerts in the VSO’s sensory-friendly concert series, as well as through the work being done by the event’s community sponsors, acceptance and awareness will continue to spread throughout the community and bring people together.

~Taylor Vigil, Staff Writer~

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