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Next Steps at First Stage Helps Kids With Autism Experience Theater

Lindsey Abendschein
First Stage

Going to the theater can be difficult for families with children with autism or other sensory sensitivities. There are a lot of possible triggers. Bright lights, loud noises and other unexpected elements can be incredibly overwhelming. But theater can also be a great way to immerse kids in a culture that teaches empathy and encourages human connections. So how do you give kids those opportunities, while maintaining a safe environment?

Credit Lindsey Abendschein / First Stage

The Next Steps program at First Stage in Milwaukee offers kids a chance to experience theater not just as an audience member, but as one of the actors. The program includes kids along the entire spectrum, and includes non-verbal student performers.

Brenna Kempf, director of the program, says the program offers special shows for kids with sensory sensitivities by dialing down some of the more intense features of a play.

The program also breaks down the play through what they call "social stories," so there are few surprises. That same idea is employed in their classes as well. 

"We have a very clear schedule that we follow everyday. We also provide social stories for specific events, such as our dress rehearsal and our final presentation," says Kempf. "And we just try to make sure that everyone is having their needs met." 

Schedules and social stories provide some order for students, which is important.

One of the challenges of teaching theater to students with autism is the often vague concept of emotions. The Next Steps classes focus on the more concrete attributes of how a character experiences their feelings. 

Credit Lindsey Abendschein / First Stage

"We try to really highlight those black and white sort of features of the scene," says Kempf. They try to focus on specific emotions the characters are experiencing, and how a person generally expresses those feelings in their face, voice, etc. "We try to stay away from things that might seem very metaphorical, or very 'meta.'"

The program also helps kids work on their social skills by teaching them how to read facial cues and express their own feelings.

For Kempf, one of the most rewarding parts of the program is how it affects her students' parents. "Sometimes they just never thought that they would see their child on stage," she says. "They never thought that they would be able to see their student performing or being a character in a scene with other people."

The Next Steps program offers year-round courses as well as summer intensives and special performances for children with sensory sensitivities. The program's upcoming summer session starts August 15, 2016. For more information on the program, email Kempf at 

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect. Before then, she was a director and producer for Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm Chicago Public Radio.