Autism and the Arts: Bricolage Creates Sensory-Sensitive Immersive Experience

Welcome to Here Promo2An enchanted forest has sprung to life in the heart of Pittsburgh as Bricolage Production Company presents Welcome to Here, a sensory-sensitive immersive experience designed specifically for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) commissioned by EQT Children’s Theater Festival. The show takes participants on an adventure through the Forest of Everywhere where a cast of furry and feathery puppets interact and play games with children in an environment designed for their comfort. “I love seeing all this stuff in Pittsburgh. It’s a big deal that we can be included in cultural things because there’s a lot of stuff we don’t fit into,” said Mindy Nagy, mother of a 13 year old girl with ASD. “She deserves to have some culture.”

Rehearsal.Parag S. Gohel

The transformation of Bricolage’s space is outstanding. The twilight lit room is full of intricately carved cardboard trees from which birds can be heard chirping, a circle of stumps and stones rest in the middle for participants to gather around and sing with Ranger Roger and there is even a slide in Don Key’s house. Hops the bunny shares his collection of trinkets as an exploration in textures while kids can play an invisible harp in Esther the Ostrich’s house. Adventurers enjoy a number of other activities such as digging for bugs (Simon the alpaca’s favorite snack), play in piles of leaves or leave their mark on the walls of the chalk cave. There is even a “cloud room”, a safe space for adventurers to relax in if they become overwhelmed.

For Nagy, this show provides an opportunity to enjoy the arts with her daughter in an environment that caters to her very specific needs. Preparation for the show starts the night before, as Nagy and her daughter read the social story provided by Bricolage to prepare children for the adventure ahead. Nagy explained that a social story is a very important aspect and limits any uncomfortable surprises so that her daughter can be fully prepared and enjoy the experience. “What I was really surprised with is she followed along with the other kids and she’s not very social. To see her playing in the leaves with the Ranger and a couple of other kids, that’s a big deal because normally she is off in a corner by herself,” said Nagy. “She was sitting down singing with everybody and that means a lot.”

Siovhan ChristensenThe show was conceived when Bricolage was asked if they could modify their Midnight Radio Jr. show for a sensory-sensitive audience. They said no. Instead of trying to alter a show designed for a neuro-typical audience, they would instead build a show from the ground up with the ASD community in mind. For Bricolage, it all started with research. They partnered with Arts for Autism and Firefly Arts and spent a week in workshops educating themselves on ASD and how to build a show to cater to the needs of their audience. But to really get a grip on what it means to live with ASD, to understand the sensitivities and triggers, nothing comes close to the first hand experience of someone that is a part of the community. “I would never ever do a show for a specific community without having that community member as part of the team that builds it,” said Artistic Director Tami Dixon. Vanya Rumsey, a 17 year old autistic self-advocate, was brought on board and cast as the queen of the forest while also influencing the development of the show based on her own experience with ASD. “She’s really our eyes and our ears and she’s the person that we look to.” Dixon said “She was incredibly helpful for that part of the process. If she wasn’t there I don’t think we would have this show at all, she was instrumental.” For Rumsey, the show is another opportunity for her to advocate for her community and share her story. “Working on this production has been an incredible opportunity for me to share my knowledge and advocate for my community,” said Rumsey. “There isn’t often a chance to articulate my everyday experiences as Autistic and use that knowledge to help create something specifically designed to accommodate for the needs of my community.”

You can catch Welcome to Here May 12th through the 15th and tickets can be found here. A special thank you to Bricolage Production Company for allowing us to experience the beta test of this show.