The Nashville Symphony’s Family Series begins this Saturday with “Pirates! The Quest for Blackbeard’s Treasure,” a program that features swashbuckling-themed music geared towards the symphony’s youngest listeners.
In addition to pre-concert activities that include craft stations and an instrument petting zoo, the entire series (which includes three more concerts extending into next year) is now described as “sensory friendly,” with modifications for autistic audience members and individuals with sensory processing differences.
Developed in collaboration with Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s TRIAD program, these include kiosks with headphones and fidget toys, flexible seating, and a social story, a guide to describe to new concertgoers what to expect before they arrive.
Kelley Bell, who is the Education and Community Engagement Program Manager for the symphony, says that when sensory friendly programming was introduced a few years ago, it was for one standalone concert. Bell says she’s excited to see these accommodations expanded to the entirety of the family series this season. “I think the emphasis is really about being inclusive,” she explained, “and everyone belongs in the hall and everyone belongs at this concert. So it’s been nice to make it a standard aspect of these concerts.”
Although she hasn’t heard directly from autistic patrons or individuals with sensory processing sensitivities, Bell says the response from parents—through returned surveys and personal interactions in the concert hall—have been overwhelmingly positive. “We’ve had a lot of families who have said that this is the first time that they can take their relatives or their children to a concert like this,” she said, adding that the outings are particularly meaningful for children and parents who share music as a special interest.
Nashville Symphony is not the only local organization working on creating sensory friendly environments. Adventure Science Center, Nashville Ballet and the Frist Art Museum are among the growing list of organizations joining the initiative. It all fits into a larger conversation happening globally about inclusivity, as autism diagnostic rates reported by the Centers for Disease Control have increased significantly in the past several decades, in large part due to the reduction of racial, ethnic and gender disparities in the diagnostic process.
In the past few years, supermarket chains in Australia and the UK made headlines when they introduced weekly “quiet hours,” allowing customers to shop with dimmed lights and reduced noise levels. In the United States, corporations like Target, AMC and JetBlue have experimented with similar initiatives.
As with the Nashville Symphony’s sensory friendly programming, responses to “quiet hours” in supermarkets have been widely positive. But some self-advocates have pushed back on these types of programs, citing their limitations and the discrepancy in accommodations for disabilities that aren’t always visible: “Do we ask folks in wheelchairs to go shopping at select stores for an hour a week where we will put out ramps on the steps and make sure we have trolleys they can use to shop?” Georgie Elle, an autistic mom with a son who is also autistic, wrote last week in an opinion piece for Australian newspaper WAtoday.
Kelley Bell says the Nashville Symphony is having conversations about expanding accommodations beyond their children's concerts, not only to make their entire season more inclusive, but to also aknowledge that autistic adults could benefit from such changes. “I think sometimes it’s easiest to start with children. But obviously these children grow up,” she says. In the future, she hopes that sensory friendly supports, as well as other supports like American Sign Language interpreters and closed captioning, will be available at every Nashville Symphony concert. “Our goal,” she explains, “is everything at some point.”