Perfectly Imperfect

The goal is not to be perfect; the goal is to be accepted for the imperfections.

Lion King (Autism Friendly) Review

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Lion King is officially my first musical! I had watched other performances – Kitaro; Michael Learns to Rock – but I had not been to a musical.

There were so many considerations. I wanted so badly to watch “The Last Emperor” at Esplanade Singapore. I wanted to catch “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera”, but I was so hesitant. If you have not visited Singapore, it is a tiny little country that makes up a big city. Everyone is everywhere! It is always crowded, and it is permanently humid.

Back in Singapore, I had to consider the time, day and place of meeting when making appointments for social or work purposes. Lunch and dinner time means super crowd and noises. I almost only met with people off peak hours; like 2:30pm etc..

I am incapacitated during peak hours. Most of my functions are shut down and converged to the channel to just deal with one situation. It was very mentally and psychologically taxing. When I had to meet people during busy hours, all my senses were activated to cope with everything that was going on.

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The day arrived for the Lion King event, one show, one day event for autism-friendly performance at Crown Perth Theatre. I bought the ticket 2 months before the show.

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I had been to Crown Perth, but when it was still known as Burswood Hotel. That was a decade ago. I arrived at the venue one and a half hours earlier; I was not the only one who arrived early. Many people arrived as early as I did; I guessed they were allowing the patrons with autism to familarise with the environment to avoid surprises and manage anxiety triggers. I was there early for the same reasons; and I wanted to set buffer for the possibility of getting lost in commute.

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I managed to get the seat on the 6th row from the stage, with ample space between the 5th row and where I was seated. It was both a blessing and distraction. Half an hour before the show started, more people arrived.

Company – Avoid Going Alone

With increased crowd, there was increased motion and sound activities. I was on the verge of overloading. I found myself getting anxious for no good reason. The sounds was getting deafening, and I was failing to cope. I started to proliferate in texting to a friend who is also on the spectrum. I realised that I needed a distraction immediately or I may go into hyperventilation – panic attack.

Tip: It is advisable to attend a musical event or any event that is potentially filled with large crowd with a friend who understands your needs. It serves as a distraction so that you do not go into sensory overdrive and meltdown. 

I did not see anyone else going alone. I was brave; or ignorant!

Noise Canceling Device or Ear Plugs

It came to a point that I could take it no longer, and I put on the ear phone and played music on my iPhone to drown the sounds on the outside. I found some solace immediately. I had taken the quieter environment that the Perth suburbs offer for granted and forgotten what it was like in a crowded environment.

When I was seated, I removed the ear phones, and within a minute, I was wanting to cry. It was senseless, unexplainable, and even ridiculous to me, yet, it was exactly what it was – overwhelmed.

Lack of Information

I shall disclaim that my review is non-discriminatory, just factual observations and personal experiences. 

We need to be realistic that the performance is not a charity event, it is a special event that the organizer and the Autism organization collaborated to make some accommodations to allow it to be “autism friendly”.

There was a lack of information on what to expect for the day. I had received emails confirming my booking and also the terms and condition of the purchase. Nearer to the event, another email came to advise on the drink package that I had purchased along with the seat booking, and reminder on the punctuality of the entrance to the show.

In prior to the booking, and after the booking, I had searched intensively online for information about the event and to find any advice for the ‘special’ audiences. I found very little information.

It is probably more helpful to enclose the program booklet in the booking confirmation about the time that the performance starts, interval, and the time that the performance is expected to end. Knowing what to expect is of paramount importance to most people with autism – especially comorbid with anxiety condition – to mitigate the situation.

While I was there, there was someone giving out some booklets, so I thought I should collect it, but was told that the program booklet would cost $25; I didn’t buy it.

Cluelessness

Like I said, this is not a charity event, and in a way it is good because it keeps things as real as it can get. It may help people (like myself) who are more independent in getting around places to experience what it would be like to attend a regular musical.

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We depend heavily on information and explicit guidance and instruction. I did not know what to do with myself when I was at the lounge of the theatre and I did not know where to go during the interval – I did not know instinctively that it was already the interval, I only realized it when people were getting up from their seats.

I bought a champagne package at the point of booking the ticket – I were to collect the champagne and chocolate during the interval. Again, I would strongly encourage people with autism to attend the event with at least one friend/caregiver. Most of us are affected in our executive functions (that help with planning), although I have trained myself to operate better in my executive functions, such training (in way of coping) may falter during sensory overloads.

I was once again in the middle of ‘chaos’ whereby everyone was everywhere, and everyone was contributing to the heightening noise level. I could not plan effectively. I just went with the person in front of me; I ended up collecting the champagne and chocolate, when I really should have gone to use the washroom first. Without another person to hold my drink, I struggled a little if I should finish my champagne faster so that I could use the washroom before the show restarted – again, there was no information on the duration of interval, hence contributing to my stress level.

Helpers

Despite the lack of advance and sufficient information, it is commendable that there were many helpers to guide audiences and render assistance whenever needed. They seemed trained to handle autistic people. These helpers were sitting/squatting around the seats in order to promptly render help to audiences who need to leave the theatre during the performance to a quiet place (by the way, I did not know where the ‘quiet place’ was located), should they feel overwhelmed.

I was quite impressed by the alertness of every helper who sprung to panicking caregivers when their autistic person needed to ‘stim’ or get out of the seat.

Thumbs up to the helpers!

Effectiveness

Autism spectrum is a very broad spectrum. In a broader categorization, there are the verbal and non-verbal groups. Although anyone from either group may adopt “verbal stimming”, I find those in the non-verbal group to be expressing themselves more overtly with loud sounds. Some could be affected by some form of physical disability hence unable to control the output. There seems to be a positive correlation between the volume of their expression and the level of excitement.

Unavoidably, they will correspond with the height of excitement throughout the performance.

The Truth about “Autism Friendly” and Compensation

Perhaps no one would come out to say this, but I am going to say it anyway. Remember, I am not discriminating other autistics who are different from my kind of autistic, it’s just an honest reporting. I feel that the “autism friendly” show is really about compensation.

It is said that the main accommodations made to the performance are the lightings and sounds. I have not watched the regular show, so I cannot compare. I can say that the sound level was within the tolerable range for me – who has sensory processing difficulties dominantly on sound, smell, touch, and temperature; I am only affected by some lights such as hospital white lights, so I cannot say whether the lightings at the show are suited for people who are sensitive to lights; they were gentle on my eyes.

When I went to watch a movie at the cinema, I was often affected by the irregular volumes of surround sound systems. I would become very anxious and often ended up with migraine. The Lion King performance was gentle on my ears yet powerful enough to exhilarate emotions.

That being said, my sound sensitivity (strictly speaking) is not immune to shouts, yelling, and loud noises made by the caregivers and the other autistic people. Understanding that they did not do it on purpose to annoy us is one thing, to be able to tolerate and process the sounds is another. It is a trade-off from having a regulated and adjusted stage performance sound system with live noises at high volume, pitch and range that I cannot tolerate.

When overwhelmed, some autistics may express outwardly in an exploding fashion; although I looked calmed and collected on the outside, I was imploding silently on the inside.

Distractions 

I am also very easily distracted, that is the primary reason that I am often seated on the first row in the classroom or lecture hall, otherwise, I would be spending the entire time trying to de-distract myself from the minute movements of classmates in front of me.

Many autistic people are also accompanied with attention condition – primarily ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) – so their attention span can be very short. The show may be very interesting for some of us, but it may be too attention demanding for others. So, there were many people moving around, such as standing up and refusing to sit still.

Beautiful Gesture – Everyone Understands 

I feel that this event has a very lovely and beautiful gesture. I was quite moved by the fact that despite all the disruptions, either by constant motion that blocked our views, or loud expressive sounds that interfered with the stage performance, everyone was tolerant and understanding. It was a very kind environment, but that is what it is – kindness and tolerance.

Conversely, the quality of enjoyment for the performance has been low; not to confuse with the quality of the show and that of the performers.

I missed many parts of the show because my mind was distracted by frequent movements of people in front of me and to analyse – that is what I do involuntarily in order to make sense of things. My mind wandered immediately to empathise with the caregivers who had to remove their autistic son from the seat and did not return until quite some time had passed. This episode repeated throughout the show. I had to forcibly remind myself to take my eyes and mind off this family and to watch the performance instead. By the time I accomplished that, several small snippets of the show was missed.

I was not alone on this. I was seated along the aisle where seats were group in 3 seats, and between the group of seats, were empty spaces for audiences on wheelchair. I was seated in the middle, two mothers (I presumed) were seated beside me, and their autistic daughters on wheelchairs beside them. The small girl on my left (with her mother between us) was unable to see what was on the stage because the boy was repeatedly blocking her view. She was very tolerant, but up to a point, she was complaining to her mother (softly) that she could not see, and her mother comforted her and made her understand that the boy did not do it on purpose.

The girl on my right (with her mother between us) was non-verbal. Her mother was very encouraging and seemingly cheerful. I suspected that it must be one of the rare situations that the girl was very happy at the event. The mother was singing along and engaging her daughter in some part of the show. I was very moved.

So you see, while trying to watch a musical, I spent an enormous amount of time and attention catching all the small details (I can go on and on about everything I had observed and analysed!) that went on off stage!

Was it Worth the While?

Absolutely! However, I may not attend another Autism-Friendly musical. It was truly an amazing experience and definitely the best choice to have started my first musical. I think of it as a ‘trial’ performance.

I had put off watching musical for too long, and if not for this autism-friendly event, I may never dare to attend a musical or concert. This event provided me with insights into what to expect from a similar event, and prepared me for future events. If I had gone to a regular show, I may have to experience a higher level of stress because I would be so nervous about being awkward. I was more motivated to ask for help from the helpers stationed all over the event venue, because I knew they would be gentle and approachable.

In short, I was more relaxed because it was an environment that I was allowed to be weird and awkward. People may be forming opinions around everyone, but like me, they were only trying to understand the situation. Keyword – understand.

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Of course, going home with a goodie bag full of souvenirs has definitely made everything better!

Now that I have taken the first step into watching my first musical, there is no stopping from here! The next time, I will be more prepared – sketch book (doodling helps ease anxiety by creating a private mental bubble that I could take refuge from all the activities around me) ear plugs, anxiety medication (just in case), and a friend on standby on the phone.

Final Conclusion – This is a Love Affair

This event is an event of gentleness, compassion and love. It is untrue to say that we are incapable of empathy, if anything, we feel too much, too intensively. In this event, I witnessed the greater love of parents who want their autistic child to have a chance to enjoy the award-winning musical – mind you, it’s just a little cheaper, but the ticket prices are nowhere near cheap – and to experience it with their child (although in the case I saw, the child clearly didn’t care much about the musical, but he was probably trying his best too.). I saw undeterred patience of the caregivers when their autistic person was making lots of noises or struggling to cope with noises. I saw the love and tolerance of a community because on one gets judged – not on the person who made loud noises; and not on the person who was affected by the noises. I saw compassion of the normal people who tried to make this day a special one – the performers must struggle with the loud sounds too, but they stayed focused and professional; the helpers who kept a vigilant eye on everyone who may need assistance.

 

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