On Sunday 4th June, I had the immense privilege and pleasure of volunteering at an autism-friendly performance of The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre. A partnership between Disney Theatrical Productions, the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) and The National Autistic Society that has been running for several years, the production provides all the wonder of a ‘regular’ performance with amendments in things like sound and lighting for a neurodiverse audience.
As an autistic fan of both Disney and musical theatre, being able to help out at such an event is like a dream come true.
It was an amazing experience.
As people began to enter the theatre, my role was to assist them with getting to their seats and answering any queries they may have about what was going to happen. A really lovely quiet room had been set up in the ambassador’s lounge, complete with bean bags, colouring, soft toys, sensory toys and a DVD of Finding Dory, so we let any nervous looking families know that that was available for use at any time throughout the show. The regular theatre staff were wonderful to work with – having had some training in creating autism-friendly spaces before the volunteers arrived, they did their jobs with an understanding and enjoyment that brought smiles onto the faces of everyone they came into contact with. The staff from Disney were equally fabulous, working together with all of us to create the best possible experiences.
As the auditorium began to slowly fill up, a young girl plucked up the courage to call me over; with her mum gently encouraging her, she asked me if we had any spare headphones as she had left her’s at home. I could see, in her eyes, the panic that I knew on a very personal level, and my heart immediately began to jump with a desperate need to sort something out. Emboldened with the knowledge that I had to put my personal experience to good use, I began to search the theatre for a pair of ear-defenders that would be suitable. Alas, after a time it became clear that we did not have any. Slightly deflated, I went back to the young girl and let her know that all we had available were ear plugs – she shook her head, no, she didn’t like them (at which I began nodding, as earplugs and in-ear headphones are officially the work of the sensory devil), and worriedly asked me whether I thought it would get too loud for her. I explained that they had taken out some of the louder moments and toned down the rest, but, if she needed to, all she had to do was come to me and I would be able to take her to the quiet room where she could rest.
Although her family seemed content, I could not get that little face out of my mind. She reminded me of a young me, having left something so important at home and desperately trying to be brave enough to sort out what to do without it. I knew that panic. I knew that bubbling of rising dread in my stomach.
So, when one of the senior people from the theatre came through to check everything was okay, I listened to my gut and asked if there was anything, anything at all, that we could do.
When, ten minutes later, I approached the family with a pair of snug ear-defenders that had been acquired from a member of the sound crew, the way that the girl’s face lit up with both excitement and relief was one of the sweetest things I could imagine. I felt relief swell in me as well. I knew now that she could put that particular panic aside and at least have the best possible chance of enjoying the show.
And the issue of having a store of ear-defenders for such an event was also raised, logged and considered for future performances.
All because a little autistic girl had the courage to reach out to me, and I, a much less little autistic girl, understood the importance of what she needed due to my own personal and painful experience.
Before the lights went down, the actors portraying Scar and Rafiki came on stage to introduce themselves and explain a little about what was going to happen in the show. They spoke respectfully and with understanding – not once was there the sense that they were talking down to or patronising the autistic individuals they knew were sitting in their audience.
There was an atmosphere of acceptance, understanding and celebration settling warmly in the air; the autistic children and adults were free to do whatever they needed, whatever made them comfortable, whether that be movement or noise or any of those other things that are generally frowned upon in a theatre environment. As the animals began to parade through the auditorium in ‘The Circle of Life’, the reactions of the crowd were heart-thumpingly visceral. I myself am an incredibly vocal person, especially when it comes to appreciation – I will sing along, I will woop, I will clap, I will beat the arms of my seat – so to be able to both watch and join in this experience, without fear of judgement or backlash, brought a tear to my eye.
As much as I love the theatre, there is a very noticeable and stifling weight that hangs over my expressions of enjoyment. I have had to learn to hold back my reactions as much as I can – hold my breath, don’t cheer so hard, knot my fingers together, sit up straight – and, even then, it is impossible to stop some of my excitement bubbling through. A few years ago, I and a friend went to see a production of A Chorus Line at the London Palladium; we had seen it several times and had come to know the cast, so our responses were enthusiastic and full of love for the show. We cheered each musical number, clapped until out hands were sore and, as our standing ovation finished and we looked at each other, faces flushed from the high of the show, the older gentleman sitting in front of us turned to us with a sneer on his face:
‘You will never amount to anything….anything.’
The venom in his voice was palpable. It was like it had been injected directly into my veins. I wanted to cry. All I had done was respond to the show – I had been quiet during the emotional moments, I hadn’t spoken with my friend, my phone had been switched off the whole way around – and this man was casting aspersions on my whole life. Insulting my character. Diminishing me with a withering stare. My heart felt like it was splitting in two. My reaction was right for me. It felt right. But other people felt it was wrong. Was I wrong?
The man’s scorching eyes, scornful words and machine-gun tutting were a world away as I stood to the side of the auditorium, hearing the delighted cries and watching the ecstatic flapping as a host of beautiful animal costumes made their way onto the stage.
I cried. Just a little bit.
As the show progressed, I spun my fidget spinner between my fingers. At some points, I was absent-mindedly using my free hand to give it extra momentum. And at no moment did anyone cast me a funny glance or utter a disapproving noise from the corners of their mouth.
I’d never felt so free.
One of my favourite songs in The Lion King is, in fact, one that was written for the musical and does not appear in the original film. ‘They Live In You’ is sung by Mufasa to a child Simba, beautifully teaching him how the lives and lessons of every single king to come before him live on in the life that he now leads. It’s the most gorgeous, poignant composition, and the lyrics felt heart-rendingly pertinent as I leant against the wall and looked out on a generational mix of autistic adults and children.
I thought about the years of asylums, of restraints, of out-of-sight-out-of-mind that the people who had come before me had endured. I thought about the people who had not been helped or supported, who had struggled through on their own as I had for twenty-three years…only, that struggle never came to an end. I thought about the autistic activists that had begun emerging over the past few decades, standing up and taking hold of the world for autistic people – demanding respect, and understanding, and celebration of who we are and how we see the world.
And I saw the faces of a hundred autistic children, who still faced an uphill struggle in a world that all too often doesn’t try to understand, light up as they were accepted, appreciated and allowed to truly be themselves without fear of judgement or repercussions. I saw a little boy running up to me, flashing the biggest smile, and proudly telling me that he was autistic. I saw the people before us fighting to get us to this point and I saw how, with the power they’ve handed us, we will continue to fight until every autistic person on this planet gets to live the life we all deserve.
They live in you
They live in me
They’re watching over
Everything we see
In every creature
In every star
In your reflection
They live in you