Picture yourself trying to enjoy a musical with stage lights as blinding as lightning and music like thunder.
That is how autistic children can experience the world — and the theater, even if they love songs, costumes and fairy tales.
So the lights were dimmed and the volume lowered for a Friday afternoon performance of “Shrek the Musical,” organized by the Nassau Suffolk Chapter of the Autism Society of America, for an audience at the mostly filled 400-seat John W. Engeman Theater in Northport.
“A lot of our kids love Shrek; a lot of our kids love listening to music,” said Suzanne Reek, executive director, of the local Autism Society chapter, and the mother of an 18-year-old son with autism.
And importantly, “We’re with our own crowd.”
The local autism society holds about 100 events a year, she said, which helps parents and their children surmount another possible consequence of handling a neurological disorder: “A lot of isolation, a lot of depression.”
This time, parents and siblings could all relax, instead of worrying that other theatergoers, who have paid up for tickets, will object to sitting near a child who might be vocal or rock in the seat. “You feel uncomfortable,” Reek said.
“It’s the only time we are able to go out without worrying about what people are going to think or say about how he acts,” said Jackie Ziff of Lynbrook. She was referring to one of her adopted twins, Jack, 7, who is autistic; his sister, Zoe, is not. Nor are her two biological children.
“He’s pretty well-behaved, but it depends — you are always nervous,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of ugly, and I’ve seen a lot of beautiful” reactions.
Kevin Troy, 16, of Franklin Square, came with his twin, Michael, the more affected of the two, according to his mother, Lori, 47. Kevin explained how people should conduct themselves when they encounter autistic children.
“They should understand more — and help.”
That view was shared by Corinne Brown, 41, of Kings Park, who brought her sons, Patrick, 11, who is on the autism spectrum, and Finn, 6, who is not. “To be nice, to be understanding, and to have compassion for what our family might be going though” is how she would like strangers to respond.
This musical gave “us a chance to go out together, instead of leaving him home,” she said. “It’s hard on the siblings,” she said, but Finn sticks up for his older brother.
Kevin, describing himself as only a “tiny” bit autistic, attends a regular high school. He exemplifies the progress that can be achieved with specialized help — and lots of hard work.
“I used to be the same; then I grew out of it,” he said. His twin, standing up, stretching, and smiling, agreed the musical was fun. “Both of them are doing a great job,” said their mother.
Thanks to Bethpage Federal Credit Union, the tickets were free, said co-theater-owner Kevin J. O’Neill. He agreed to put on the musical because: “It’s just a good thing to do.”
Reek said Bethpage’s contribution was particularly important because some families with an autistic child decide one parent must stay home to care for their child, which can crimp their finances.
The plot of “Shrek the Musical” and its collection of traditional and more unusual characters matched some of the audience’s values. Said Jessie Eppelheimer, the theater’s marketing manager:
“It’s just about accepting all kinds of people . . . you can be yourself.”