Lions and Turtles and Lessons

In the autism world, everyone is talking about “The Lion King.”

Why is a 14-year-old Broadway musical attracting such attention? Because on Sunday, it became the first Broadway show ever to offer a performance specially modified for children with autism.

For me it brought back some memories. And maybe a lesson.

Many children with autism have difficulty tolerating loud noises and bright lights. With sensory systems that make it difficult to process extreme sensations, they can feel overwhelmed even by simple things like the buzz of a crowded room. (When he was young, Ezra would jump at sounds that others barely noticed, like the hum of a drinking fountain’s motor.)

Add to that a general fidgetiness and a lack of self awareness, and you see why taking a child with autism to a musical might prove a challenge.

So The New York Times reports that for the 1,600 guests who showed up to Sunday’s matinee, the company turned down the volume, and switched off the strobe lights. The Minskoff Theater offered quiet areas in the lobby for kids who needed a break from all the action. And a lot of kids who might not otherwise have been able to enjoyed an afternoon of theater.

As it happens, “The Lion King” was a landmark show for our family, too. When Ezra was 11, his grandparents took him and his brothers to see the live show in Los Angeles

Ezra knew the story well from repeatedly watching the video of the Disney animated movie. So he spent much of the performance talking: “Ooh, look, it’s Zazu! Do you see Zazu?” “Look that’s Rafiki! He’s a mandrill!”

This wasn’t new. Ezra routinely got so excited for his beloved animated movies that he would narrate the stories in the theater, unaware that he might be disturbing people sitting nearby. I found his enthusiasm delightful, but always tried to get him to keep his voice down to be polite.

But live theater is different. For one thing, the tickets are pricey. So pretty soon a man sitting one row up at “Lion King” turned around.

“You’re going to have to get your kid to pipe down,” he told my father-in-law. Ezra’s grandfather did his best to explain. But the guy had a point. Ezra survived the performance, but by the end, he had an unhappy neighbor, and I’m sure my in-laws’ nerves were a bit frazzled.

When I heard about the incident, I understood why it had happened. I wasn’t surprised Ezra had found it difficult to contain his excitement. But I also knew that Ezra had to learn the proper way to behave in a crowded theater.

“I know you get excited,” I said, “but you have to learn to keep it in your head.”

He listened, but I wasn’t sure how much he was absorbing.

A few weeks later, I had a chance to find out. Our family went to a matinee of an animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. On the way to the show, I reminded Ezra what had happened at “Lion King,” and encouraged him to try keeping his thoughts to himself. In the theater, I sat next to him and whenever he looked at me, I put an index finder to my lips: Shhhh. After a few minutes, he seemed to relax and, in turn, so did I. In fact, I forgot we had even had the discussion.

Until the moment the credits rolled and the music went up. That’s when Ezra leapt to his feet.

“I didn’t talk!” he shouted. “I kept it in my head!”

Ever since then, he hasn’t needed reminding to keep it in his head. And he almost always dances through the credits.

I’m grateful the kids on Sunday got to see the “Lion King” the easy way. But I’m also proud that a few years ago, my son learned to be a theatergoer the hard way.

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