Hobby Center hosts autism-friendly performance of 'The Lion King'

By Rachel McNeill - Anchor

HOUSTON - The Lion King musical has wowed audiences around the world for 15 years, making it the highest-grossing Broadway show in history. Now in its third run in Houston, the Hobby Center has teamed up with local experts to put together a special autism-friendly performance.

The story of The Lion King is told through spectacular music, thrilling dancing and colorful costumes. But for those with autism, the experience can be sensory overload.

Bryant Shaw, Ph.D., is the director of the diagnostic clinic at Houston's Monarch Institute for Neurological Differences.

He explained to Local 2, "That sense of unpredictability is often very anxiety-provoking for people on the autism spectrum."

But when the Hobby Center Foundation heard about autism-friendly performances given in New York last fall, the thought was "Let's bring it to Houston!"

It's the first time such a show has ever been done outside of New York City.

Foundation President Fran Macferran told Local 2, "We had this five-week run book and ... we would frankly be remiss if we didn't raise our hand and ask if we couldn't do the same thing."

Shaw added, "If we can make this work here ... we feel like the floodgates for this kind of opportunity would open across the country. People will see that this can be done."

Shaw is one of many experts who helped make the idea a reality.

He explained, "If you're on the fence about whether this is something that you can do, this is a safe place to try. So we're trying to create that safe practice place for everyone."

The performance was slightly tweaked, keeping loud surprising noises and strobe lights to a minimum.

Macferran added, "It's 100 percent The Lion King from start to finish. The real modification is what we do front of house. We've created activities (and) quiet areas."

More than 50 volunteers who work in the autism community will also be on hand from start to finish.

Shaw explained, "We'll have volunteers stationed from garage into the building, setting the stage for people to be calm because anxiety about the unknown is always a factor in how people regulate when they're on the autism spectrum."

On the Hobby Center website, there is also a social story available which shows pictures of the theater and explains how the theater experience works.

Most importantly, Shaw said the audience has "the freedom to come and go as you need to, (which) is a potential obstacle for many families in bringing their family to the theater, that sort of being locked in your seat and not being able to get out of the theater when you get overwhelmed. Just that shift in itself is a major accommodation that will support people in being able to enjoy the performance before."

Macferran added, "So we've created an environment here that is totally supportive, totally comfortable, where they can come and be who they are and have a wonderful experience and just be like everybody else."

The autism friendly performance of The Lion King will be on July 28 at 2 p.m.

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