A More Open House

Fourth Year Ana Mendelson accommodates theater for local kids with sensory challenges

Back in summer 2013 Ana Mendelson was working with a young girl in the Charlottesville area who had a developmental disability. One day they tried going to a local movie theater.

“She had a completely overwhelming experience,” Mendelson said.

They tried sitting in different areas.

“In the front row she kept turning around to see what all the other people were doing. In the back row, she enjoyed the feeling of pushing on the seat in front of her with her feet. The aisle seemed like the most flexible option,” she explained.

The ushers would not allow them to sit in the aisle, however. By this time, audience members were casting disapproving glances their way, so they decided to leave.

Ana is amazing. She is an exceptional young woman who truly cares about providing sensory friendly performances to this population.

This distressing incident inspired Mendelson, who graduates this May with a B.S.Ed. in communication disorders and a B.A. in psychology, to do something.

“Having many fond memories of attending theater with my family, the idea of creating a stigma-free space where all families could enjoy this experience was extremely appealing,” Mendelson said.

Autism-friendly, or sensory-friendly, performances that make live theater more accessible have been expanding on and off-Broadway and at community theaters around the country over the past decade, but had not yet found their way to Charlottesville. After some online research Mendelson contacted the Theatre Development Fund in New York for guidance on accessibility. Then, in spring 2015 she wrote a successful grant proposal for a UVA Coffelt Public Service Award and founded the Autism Theatre Project. College undergrads Jaclyn Lund, Ashley Houze, Olivia Cosby, Annie Frazier, and Madi Lahey work alongside Mendelson on the project team.

“Ana is amazing,” said Jane Hilton, assistant professor of speech language pathology and director of clinical services in our Speech-Language-Hearing Center.  “She is an exceptional young woman who truly cares about providing sensory friendly performances to this population.”

Mendelson approached Hilton about this idea and then spearheaded every aspect of the performances, Hilton added.

Ana talks with “Annie, Jr.,” cast about what to expect during the accessible performance
Ana talks with the cast of the upcoming “Annie Jr.” about what to expect during the accessible performance

Last fall, Mendelson’s Autism Theatre Project partnered with DMR Adventures, a local production company, to produce its first autism-friendly performance. It was a musical called “Captain Louie, Jr.,” about a young boy finding the courage to make new friends in his new town.

The production was performed as written, with special accommodations for potential sensory challenges such as jarring sounds or lights. For example, when a sensory surprise was coming up, volunteers held out glow sticks to warn the audience.

Most of the ten volunteers for the evening were fellow undergraduate and graduate students in the Curry School’s communications disorders program or who are members of either UVA’s chapter of Autism Speaks.

Both the volunteers and actors participated in workshops led by Hilton.

“We train the actors in what the audience members with autism may do during the performance,” she explained.

In reaction to their sensitivity to noise or bright lights, some people may yell, cover their ears, or rock back and forth, maybe even run out, she said.

“Not all people with autism will have these reactions, but the actors need to know it may happen during the performance so that they can understand that nothing is wrong and to keep the play going.”

A quiet room was also available during the show for anyone who needed to take a break, and UVA student volunteers were present to assist children and families. Mendelson even produced a “Coming to the Theater” video to help families prepare for their outing.

The grant money she received from the Coffelt Award and other sources went toward royalties and rental costs that enabled DMR Adventures to provide a free performance for children with sensory sensitivity and their families. It has also covered advertising, quiet room supplies, and t-shirts for the UVA student volunteers.

The event was a success, based on survey results completed by 13 families who attended “Captain Louie, Jr.”

“We really enjoyed the performance,” said Charlottesville mother Janice Mills, who brought along her twelve-year-old daughter Trin.

“Trin cheered at the end of scenes. She loved the group singing the best.”

Trin’s primary diagnosis is Angelman Syndrome, with a secondary diagnosis of ASD. They have tried mainstream theater performances in the past, Mills said, and are always challenged by the need for wiggle room.

“We usually sit near an exit where we can go out and come back,” she said.

They found the most helpful feature of the “Captain Louis, Jr.,” performance to be the floor seating and the quiet room.

“It quickly turned unquiet when Trin found all the UVA girls in there to hang out with,” Mills said. “It was definitely a great sensory break area for her.”

This spring, with support from the office of the UVA Vice Provost for the Arts, the Autism Theatre Project is offering two shows: Spectrum Theatre’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” on April 2 and another DMR Adventures production, “Annie Jr.,” on Wednesday, April 27, at 6 PM.

“In the future, I see Autism Theatre Project as a community-based consulting group that helps theaters put on accessible performances,” Mendelson said.  “I hope all Charlottesville-area theaters would be interested in increasing their accessibility.”

Mendelson has also been involved in First Year Players, Challah for Hunger, Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity, and the University Singers. During her third year, she was a resident advisor for First Years, and she served as a UVA Orientation Leader in summers 2014 and 2015.

Autism Awareness Month

April is National Autism Awareness Month! Here are some additional services the Curry School offers for persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder and programs considering effective ways to support this population.

  • Curry Autism Spectrum Services is a specialty clinic within the Sheila C. Johnson Center for Human Services at the Curry School. It encompasses a diverse group of clinicians and researchers representing the fields of speech-language-hearing and clinical and school psychology, who provide comprehensive evaluations to children and adults exhibiting symptoms associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. They also offer a social-pragmatics skill group for children and young adolescents who have difficulty in social situations.
  • Speech-Language Intensive Summer Help (or SPLISH) is an annual six-week program serving children with autism and provided by the Curry School’s Speech-Language-Hearing Center.
  • The Curry Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Group consists of faculty members and doctoral students who conduct research on ASD and related interventions. They collaborate with several organizations within the local community, including the Charlottesville Region Autism Action Group, which is associated with Commonwealth Autism Services, and the Virginia Institute of Autism.
  • Faculty in our special education program are also collaborating with the Virginia Institute of Autism and conducting research on autism. See, for example, “Research Aims to Utilize ‘Symptom’ of Autism to Improve Reading Comprehension” describing recent work by Professor Michael R. Solis.


Photos by Tom Cogill