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LI performing arts venues ramp up shows for kids with special needs

These special performances of live theatrical shows are designed for sensitive young viewers.

Children attending a sensory-friendly workshop led by teaching

Children attending a sensory-friendly workshop led by teaching artist Elise May play a spirited game of catch with a large beach ball at Tilles Center. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

For families with special needs, enjoying quality time outside the home has become more accessible. Movie theaters such as AMC’s offer “sensory-friendly” films for families on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, during which the lights and audio are adjusted and patrons are free to move about. Local play spots such as Sensory Beans in Wantagh and BounceUin Oceanside are providing opportunities for kids of all abilities to bounce and slide in a safe environment, while after-school music, yoga, drumming and Zumba classes for kids with special needs are offered at the Theresa Academy of Performing Arts in Lido Beach.

Likewise, performing arts venues are jumping on the sensory bandwagon, offering special performances of live theatrical shows in a format designed for sensitive viewers: Because children with sensory issues and on the autism spectrum are more affected by changes to their environment, lighting and sound levels are adjusted in these facilities. Here’s a sampling of what’s available this spring, including a new sensory-friend series at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post:

Tilles Center for the Performing Arts

LIU Post, Brookville

720 Northern Blvd., Brookville

“Red Kite, Treasure Adventure,” March 15, 16 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.; March 17 at 1 and 3 p.m.; “The Polar Bears Go Up!” April 26 at 7 p.m. $15 per ticket. Call 516-299-3100 or go to During the first show, characters from the classic early reader step out of the pages and onto the stage in a lively performance. The second show, an original story that hails from Scotland, is entirely nonverbal and chronicles the adventures of two polar bears who must find their lost balloon. “Both of these shows will be presented in a format that we call a ‘relaxed performance,’ where there is no shushing,” says Stephanie Turner, director of education and outreach.

Audience members can walk around during the “Polar Bears” show, and lights and audio will be adjusted. A designated area of the lobby has been outfitted with special-needs toys. Before the performance, families are invited to a workshop during which they’ll be able to participate in activities that tie into the story. “We have had success with these kinds of activities for both neurotypical children and individuals on the spectrum,” Turner says. Preshow workshops begin at 5:30 p.m. and cost $5 per person. Boxed dinners are available for an additional $10.

“Red Kite, Treasure Adventure,” an interactive show for children on the autism spectrum, is designed for a small space and will be performed in Tilles Center’s Patrons Lounge. “Each actor is trained to work with individuals with autism and interacts with individual audience members,” Turner says. A maximum of 10 children — each accompanied by a teacher, caregiver or parent — will be permitted at each performance.

Long Island Children’s Museum

11 Davis Ave., Garden City

Garden City

“Elephant & Piggie’s: We Are in a Play!” April 2 at 6 p.m. Advance registration is required and can be made at Mo Willems’ storybook characters take to the stage in a musical celebration of friendship. A sensory-friendly performance will take place on World Autism Day and is free of charge, thanks to the museum-sponsored LICM4all initiative. In addition to reduced lights and sounds, theatregoers can take advantage of fidget items and noise-reducing headphones. “Specially trained staff will be on hand to make audiences members feel welcome, safe and comfortable,” says Maureen Mangan, director of communications and marketing. The museum will also be open that evening for its bimonthly Friendly Hours, during which families of children with special needs can experience the museum during a time with fewer visitors.

John W. Engeman Theater

250 Main St., Northport


“The Wizard of Oz,” April 6 at 1 p.m. $15 per ticket. Call 631-631-261-2900 or go to Theatregoers can follow the yellow brick road as they journey to Oz during this special performance in the children’s educational series of shows. Guests are free to enter and leave the theater accompanied by an adult, and the house lights are dimmed for the duration of the show. “We can accommodate specific lighting requests on a case-by-case basis,” says Jessie Eppelheimer, marketing manager. Groups can request sensory-friendly performances by contacting the box office. While this production is open to the public, groups also have option of a closed, private performance.

Theatre Three

412 Main St., Port Jefferson

Port Jefferson

“The Adventures of Peter Rabbit,” March 11 at 11 a.m.; “Stand Up! Stand Out! The Bullying Project,” April 29 at 11 a.m.; “Goldilocks: Is That You?” June 3 at 11 a.m. $10 per ticket. Call 631-928-9100 or go to Two beloved children’s stories and an original musical that deals with a timely issue are among this season’s children’s productions that offer sensory-sensitive performances. “The goal is to give the audience as close to the regular performance as possible with no other pressures,” says Jeffrey Sanzel, artistic director. But, he adds, “We leave the house lights up.” And for any patron that needs a break from the performance, the lobby is outfitted with blankets and stuffed animals.

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