Making a Splash with a New Audience: Autism-Friendly "Little Mermaid” Performance at Paper Mill Playhouse

Making a Splash with a New Audience: Autism-Friendly "Little Mermaid” Performance at Paper Mill Playhouse

You pick up your ticket in a crowded box office and the ushers help you find your seat; the crowd arrives around you buzzing and chatting with excitement; you scan the program filled with bright ads and striking photos, awaiting the inevitable dimming of the houselights. The announcements about cell phones and candy wrappers let you know that the show is about to begin. The orchestra tunes with loud timpani beats, horn and string trills, and the blast of music and lights starts the show. For most of us, the anticipation and experience of a play or musical is something to be treasured and repeated over and over again. But for some—including those on the autism spectrum—the experience can be overwhelming, disorienting and sometimes not worth the stares from the others in attendance.

But what if an experience could be created to take some of the pressure off; to ease the sensory overload; to welcome families and bring some relief to what should be a magical experience? Luckily for families in New Jersey, many arts organizations have answered the call and are finding ways to bring the magic of the arts to all.

On June 26th at 4:00pm, Paper Mill Playhouse, with assistance from Autism Friendly Spaces, Inc., will be offering an “autism-friendly” performance of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” a spirited musical reimagining of one of Hans Christian Andersen's most famous stories. In it, Ariel, a young mermaid longs to be part of the world of humans on land, and she makes a deal with a nasty octopus villainess to make that dream come true.

Paper Mill Playhouse has long been a leader in accommodating audiences with disabilities. Each season they offer a host of services, such as open captioning, sign language interpretation and audio description to enhance the experience of those patrons who benefit from those services. So it was no surprise when, two years ago, a mother came to Director of Education, Lisa Cooney to ask if a performance at the Paper Mill could be modified for audiences of children on the autism spectrum.

Cooney reached out to Ruth Fost and Stephanie Carr of Pushcart Players, a Verona-based theatre for young audiences, to see if an upcoming performance of Pushcart Players' “Stone Soup and Other Stories” could be scheduled and modified to meet the needs of this audience.

Taking advice from representatives from AutismNJ, the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers and parents of children on the autism spectrum, a "sensory-friendly" performance was created. The script and several theatrical elements such as lights and sound were modified to create an environment better suited to children on the spectrum. This 2011 collaboration between these two theaters was the first of its kind in New Jersey.

For the upcoming performance of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” due to its large size and scope, Paper Mill reached out to Autism Friendly Spaces, Inc., a New York-based non-profit whose mission is "to transform spaces and open minds so as to welcome the full participation of individuals with ASD in all aspects of life." Autism Friendly Spaces has modified several Broadway shows for the Theatre Development Fund, including “The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins”andSpider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

Co-Founders and Directors Jamie Bleiweiss, PhD; Donia Fahim, PhD; and Gizem Tanol, PhD developed the autism-friendly program for audiences that Paper Mill will be using. Fahim describes them as "performances that are more comprehensive in scope than sensory friendly performances, and cater specifically to adults and children with autism spectrum disorders."

The modifications made to autism-friendly performances include elements such as:

  • Visual cues like large flash cards or glow sticks are held up during the performance to warn of upcoming loud noises or flashing lights (sound levels were measured and adjusted so they don’t exceed decibel levels that could be distracting)

  • Houselights are not fully dimmed, so audience members can move about the space

  • Calming areas are designated throughout the theater for patrons to take a break

  • Specific changes are made to lessen intense theatrical effects

  • Cast members and ushers are given training to adjust to the population

  • An opportunity to "Meet Your Seat" several days prior to the show is offered to give patrons the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the space

These modifications can certainly take care of the technical aspects of the performances, but the real magic at these shows is that families have the ability to see a performance in a "judgment-free zone," sometimes for the first time together.

Cast member Nicole Johnson—who plays Arista, one of Ariel's Mersisters, shown here to the right of Flounder—whose brother Grant is on the autism spectrum, describes these performances as "a relief...such a relief. Knowing that there are so many other families surrounding us in this one space, going through this same experience, and we are not alone; knowing that we can all watch this performance and enjoy it and not worry about being judged; knowing our family members are going to develop by seeing something like this."

For families with children and adults on the spectrum, a wonderful experience awaits you at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn on June 26 at 4:00 p.m., where the theater is making sure that the arts continue to be "Part of Your World."

Editor's Note: Though there is only one autism-friendly performance, "Disney's The Little Mermaid" runs through June 30. Tickets can be purchased from Paper Mill’s website at

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