But to his relief – and happiness – Jack enjoyed a sensory version of the Blue Man Group performance art exhibit last Thursday, along with 350 other autistic children and adults and 150 of their family members.
“To see him sit there and watch more than half of the show was amazing,” Mishkin, of Potomac, said after the show. “I was crying. It’s his first theatrical experience. I was very stressed, but to see the joy on his face and this moment was worth it.
The outing was organized and funded by Bethesda’s Whitney Ellenby, a former lawyer-turned-disability advocate whose 21-year-old son, Zack Reuben, has autism and minimal speech. She worked for more than nine months to organize the event, speaking to the show’s production team and Kennedy Center officials, and getting them to agree to a performance with some modifications. She then invited people she knows in the autism community and their families to see it for free. Because the show has few words, Ellenby said, it was a good fit for people with autism who often have language issues.
The general public could buy tickets for the show and were told it was a sensory performance.
“We wanted to create a space where anything goes,” Ellenby said. “It’s a no-go zone. We get to be ourselves.
Kennedy Center officials said they told ushers about the matinee show to discard the normal theater etiquette of not speaking, eating, or standing up in the theater.
“It’s about making sure people feel welcome at the Kennedy Center and can be who they are and exist in our space the way they feel comfortable,” said Jessica Swanson, chief accessibility officer at the Kennedy Center. center.
For Mishkin, there were a few hiccups.
When she and her son arrived at the Kennedy Center, he tried to descend the escalator, but it “thrown him backwards” and he fell. This startled Jack and he felt overwhelmed and started biting his hand. According to Mishkin, it’s not uncommon for some people with autism to engage in self-harming behavior when they feel overwhelmed with stress or overwhelmed.
Kennedy Center staff rushed to ask how they could help, and Mishkin pulled snacks and his speech-generating device out of his bag in hopes he could use it and tell him what he wanted. . Finally, Jack calmed down and got up, and they went inside the theater. He looked up from his touchscreen game of assorted shapes occasionally to watch the show, hold his mother’s hand, and smile.
During the show, which lasted about 1h20, a few people got up and danced. A teenager was jumping up and down, leaning on a rail in the back row. Nearby, a man in his 40s rocked back and forth in his seat — a behavior known as stimming, where an autistic person makes a repetitive motion or unique movements or noises to help them cope with a situation that feels overwhelming. A few rows away, many children were wearing headphones to dampen the noise. Throughout the show, there were occasional moans and yelps, and lots of hand gestures, smiles, laughs, and cheers.
It was a very different vibe, said many parents and family members who came with their loved ones, than the welcome they typically get when trying to take someone with autism to the movies, to a park rides, bowling alleys, or stores, and being pointed at or whispered in a low voice if the autistic person throws a tantrum or gets too loud. While there are sensory or autism-friendly events in the DC area, many community members said there aren’t enough.
“My son can be who he really is, and I don’t need to be on high alert here,” said Eva Scheer, who lives in Bethesda, as her 21-year-old son Cade has cancer. autism, paced the hall. “We can’t do this in any other setting because there would be stares and comments.”
Over a decade ago, Ellenby started a group she calls “Autism Ambassadors” and once a month she hosts a low-cost event for people with autism and their families at a water park, trampoline, indoor gym or movie theatre.
At a Virginia water park, a non-judgmental event for families of autistic children
She and her husband hadn’t been able to hold the events for the past two years due to the pandemic, but she said she wanted to do something “really big” and came up with the idea of inviting her group at a Blue Man Group performance at the Kennedy Center.
Ellenby became well known in the autism community and wrote a book titled “Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain” about his controversial methods of taking his then 5-year-old son to see a movie and an Elmo show. He screamed, fought and kicked as she physically restrained and comforted him until he calmed down. A passerby called her a bad mother. Someone spat on her, and a man threw a soda at her as she held her son to the floor and pushed him towards their seats.
Perspective: Passers-by were horrified. But my son has autism and I was desperate.
According to autism advocates, most experts would advise helping an autistic person overcome their anxiety about going to new places or doing a new activity by first introducing them with pictures, then taking him there gradually or several times. Ellenby’s son ended up being successful in the performances, and after going on other outings in a more holistic way, she said, he overcame his powerful fear of enclosed spaces.
“I ripped the bandage off, and now his self-esteem is stronger than mine,” Ellenby said. “He’s become less self-aware, and there’s no place he can’t go.”
For many parents who attended his events, including the one at the Kennedy Center, it was a chance to help their children learn how to deal with noisy and new places.
Sitting in the front row with his parents, Gavin Hacker, 7, who has autism and lives in Germantown, was rocking in his seat as the show unfolded. His mother, Jessica, said she was delighted that he sat for over an hour and listened and watched the show.
“He can’t sit still for four minutes in class,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. He never left his seat.
About 20 minutes into the show, Ellenby approached Hannah Hasselschwert, a 10-year-old non-speaking autistic person who had come to the show with her parents. She was leaning against a wall outside the theater while her parents sat nearby.
Maria Ott, Hannah’s mother, said her daughter likes to hear and feel sensory things, but sometimes “the lights and sounds and people around” can become too much.
Ellenby asked if she could help relieve — and physically touch — Hannah to get her into the theater. Hannah and her parents agreed.
Within seconds, Ellenby had gently hugged Hannah and slowly led her into a seat in the back, where she sat on Ellenby’s lap and ended up rocking back and forth at the rhythm of drummers on stage.
“Good girl,” Ellenby said to Hannah, who fidgeted in her lap. “This whole show is for you. I’m proud of you. You did it.”
After they returned home to Kensington, Ott said she asked her daughter what she thought of Ellenby. Hannah responded, using a special communication device.
Her mother then asked her what she thought of the show. Hannah replied