NEW BRUNSWICK — In the last decade, increased awareness of autism, and New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation rate, has prompted families with children on the spectrum to seek entertainment options that cater to the specific traits of these kids.

State Theatre New Jersey is now in its third season of offering "relaxed," or autism-friendly, performances of family fare in New Brunswick. Lian Farrer, STNJ vice president for education and outreach, said the idea grew in part out of a performance of a Broadway production at which a child with autism had an outburst, and the audience did not react well.

"More and more, families with kids with autism are looking for opportunities where their children can have the same kinds of experiences (as other children), including going to live theatre, in an environment where they're not being judged," she said.

Parents and STNJ alike are not necessarily looking for different kinds of shows entirely, but ones already conducive to family audiences that can be slightly modified in a couple of distinct ways: keeping volume at a moderate level, eliminating sudden, loud noises, and leaving the house, or audience, lights on at half-strength. (Even kids who are not on the autism spectrum, Farrer said, can get upset over being in the dark.)

It's not so much changing the show, as Farrer puts it, as changing the environment. Does the child need to leave the theater? OK. Does he or she need to play on an iPad during the performance? No problem.

STNJ also provides a "quiet room" where kids can take advantage of soft bean bag chairs, a coloring station, and the ever-present option to go back into the performance if they wish.

On STNJ's website, there is a "social story" video that takes families through the process of going into the theatre and getting to their seats. That, combined with special training for ushers and other theatre staff urging them to "let go of rules" for these performances, is all aimed at acclimating children with autism to a welcoming atmosphere.

"Kids on the spectrum do not like surprises, so as much as they can know ahead of time what to expect, what the environment's going to look like, where they're going to go, what is expected of them, they can come in and just feel more comfortable," Farrer said.

The last relaxed/autism-friendly performance at STNJ was just last week, the National Acrobats of China on Nov. 17. The next one will be a school-themed show in the spring based on the children's book "The Rainbow Fish." That will be on Wednesday, April 18, 2018.

Farrer asks anyone interested in learning more about STNJ's special options for families to go to stnj.org/relaxed to view schedules, show-specific story guides, and an option to get on the theatre's mailing list.

Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. His theatre background includes a run in the Broadway cast of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" from 1994 to 1996. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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