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Students launch special theatre performances for children on the autism spectrum

Theatre Stands with Autism - Group shot

For many families who have children on the autism spectrum, something as routine as going to see a theatrical performance becomes a daunting task.

School of Communication theatre majors Anna Marr (C13) and Melanie Gertzman (C13) decided to do something about it. They formed Theatre Stands with Autism and a show called Diving In, produced by the Northwestern student performance group Purple Crayon Players in conjunction with Autism Speaks U. They will be putting on special performances for children with autism this weekend.

“Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder don’t always get the opportunity to enjoy traditional theatre, simply because it might be difficult for a child to sit quietly in the dark for two hours and behave properly under the constraints,” Gertzman said. “I strongly believe that every child should have the right to be exposed to theatre and the arts, and it doesn’t seem right that some children with ASD might never have that opportunity. This project strives to allow every child the chance to experience and enjoy theatre, and I think that is invaluable.”

Theatre Stands with Autism - Performers reaching out

Marr said that their productions cater toward the audience’s special needs, not requiring children to behave in a certain way.

“We’re telling parents that we will meet their child on whatever level they feel like being that day,” Marr said. “If they want to run around the theatre, we’ll run around with them; if they don’t want to clap and be quiet when the curtain goes up, they don’t have to. Theatre Stands with Autismis an opportunity for these children to engage with theatre in a way that not only accepts them for who they are, but, more importantly, embraces them.”

The special performance, a highly interactive and multi-sensory experience devised entirely by students, will use a sensation and movement-based performance, rather than a traditional narrative. Marr and Gertzman, who came up with the idea of producing the special show their sophomore year, worked closely with Eric Yarnik (WCAS13), the president of Autism Speaks U at Northwestern, to brainstorm about performance ideas.

Marr said that during the performance, student Adventure Guides will act as one-on-one “ambassadors” for each child in the audience. They’ll meet the children at whatever level they wish to engage the performance.

Gertzman, a double theatre and psychology major, said she has spent the last few years researching the psychological impact theatre can have on a child’s life with ASD. While there are very few good studies about theatre’s impact on ASD, Gertzman said she believes it has the potential to be a positive influence.

Theatre Stands with Autism - Performance

“Each child with ASD is different, due to the spectrum like nature of the disorder, so constantly searching for more treatment opportunities is a necessary endeavor,” she said. “Finding programs and activities for children with ASD that can provide therapeutic qualities are also crucial to families with children with ASD. Theatre programs are an excellent supplement to shaping a young person’s life and how they engage with their world. Not only do the arts allow the ability for creative expression, but they can also teach important social skills, work ethic, and emotional intelligence.”

Marr and Gertzman raised money for their unique production on Indiegogo, hitting a thousand dollars in donations in just the first day. Seven a cappella groups on campus recently performed a fundraising concert for Theatre Stands with Autism; the group also won a grant from the School of Communication’s Dean’s Advisory Council.

“I hope that this piece will engage each child in its own unique way,” Gertzman said. “Little things that might seem insignificant to most can be a huge developmental milestone and major accomplishment for a child with ASD. All I wish is for a child to be fully immersed in our world that we create for them, and I hope it gives them joy and a time to truly be themselves.”

Theatre Stands with AutismSpecial shows for children on the autism spectrum and their families only run Friday, May 10, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, May 11, at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., and 2 p.m. Others can also attend shows on Friday at 9 p.m. Shows last approximately 30 to 40 minutes. To reserve a seat or for more information about the performance, email

Story by Cara Lockwood