New Brunswick

Curtains open on sensory-friendly movement in Saint John

Saint John hosted what may be its first sensory-friendly performance on Friday morning.

Performance, app cater to people with autism or PTSD, or those who prefer low-key environments

A performer from InterAction performing arts school in Saint John in a sensory-friendly production of the Jungle Book. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

A special performance of The Jungle Book was staged Friday morning in Saint John.

It was a "sensory-friendly" version of the musical production by the InterAction School of Performing Arts that also has standard performances scheduled for Friday night and Saturday afternoon and evening at the Imperial Theatre.

At the Friday morning show, the lights were lower, with no strobes or flashing. The music wasn't as loud and there was no yelling. The house lights were half up. And the audience was invited to move around during the show if they needed to.

"Not everyone feels comfortable sitting in the dark and being quiet for an hour-and-a-half-long show," said artistic and education director Kate Wilcott.

The house lights were left half up during a sensory-friendly performance of The Jungle Book at the Imperial Theatre. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Wilcott said the sensory-friendly performance was something InterAction wanted to do because it's an inclusive performing arts school.

"We have a lot of students over the past 18 years of InterAction who would be considered on the autism spectrum or have other needs that would prevent them from feeling comfortable or their parents feeling comfortable bringing them to see live theatre," she said.

What happens is it becomes overwhelming. You can call it sensory overload. And a person can't hear. They can't think. They can't understand. They can't concentrate. And it becomes physically unpleasant,- Christel Seeberger, occupational therapist

"And we've heard over the years that there's so many people that would love to come and see a show, but for various reasons they weren't able to. So we thought, let's do it."

Wilcott was happy with the turnout and hopes the school can offer sensory-friendly versions of future productions as well.

"When I went out to welcome the crowd, I saw a theatre filled with preschool children who were talking to me and saying, 'Hi,' and running around."

"It was just this wave of energy and love."

The cast members were also enthusiastic about adapting the performance, she said.

"They kept reminding me, 'Well, at this point, when the tiger comes out and we all scream, for the sensory-friendly show we should probably gasp instead.' ... They're very empathetic," Wilcott said.

Kate Wilcott, the artistic and education director at InterAction School of Performing Arts, said it was important to the school to stage an inclusive performance. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Occupational therapist Christel Seeberger consulted on the performance.

"Many spaces and events are very busy, very noisy and very bright. One of the key themes of being sensory-friendly is just to tone that down a little bit for everyone."

People who have autism aren't the only ones interested.

Sensory-friendly environments can also be helpful to people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, concussion, hearing loss or anxiety, said Seeberger.

"Those are all, unfortunately, diagnoses that are happening more and more. This is a large and growing segment of the population. In Canada, for example, that adds up to about a third of the population."

Seeberger herself has hearing loss and said even with a good quality hearing aid she sometimes finds herself at a loss in noisy surroundings.

Cast members toned down their performances for audience members who may be sensitive to loud noises. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

"What happens is it becomes overwhelming. You can call it sensory overload. And a person can't hear. They can't think. They can't understand. They can't concentrate. And it becomes physically unpleasant."

Some companies have begun catering to customers with sensory sensitivities.

In Prince Edward Island, for example, two grocery store chains have agreed to offer sensory-friendly shopping hours.

Lights are dimmed, no shopping carts are retrieved, and the public address system and music are shut off. 

Locally, the trademark bright and bustling Saint John City Market recently incorporated sensory-friendly activities into its Halloween celebrations.

Christel Seeberger is an occupational therapist who is developing an app to help people find sensory-friendly environments. (Submitted by Christel Seeberger)

"We turned off the background noise and as part of the candy that I handed out, I also handed out foam earplugs," said Seeberger. "And the response from the kids was amazing to that."

Seeberger is partnering with the New Brunswick Community College, with support from the National Research Council, to develop an app that she hopes will make it easier for people to locate sensory-friendly environments.

"I'm calling it a sensory-friendly finder," said Seeberger.

"It lets sensory-friendly seekers find places, spaces and events that are offering sensory-friendly products or services."

She said they expect to have a prototype ready by the end of December.