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Sensory Friendly Performances Welcome All

Julia Wilkinson knows how challenging it is to be a mother of a special needs child during the holidays.  Many of the entertainment other families enjoy like visits to see Santa and Christmas performances are unmanageable.

“When a family has a kid with special needs, they live in fear that people are going to criticize them which is why a lot of families with special needs kids don’t go to performances,” Wilkinson says.

Wilkinson is the founder and artistic director of the Colorado Conservatory of Dance and she wanted to create a welcoming environment for those like her five year old special needs son who is often left out of traditional family experiences.  Sitting still, staying quiet and being in the dark surrounded by loud noises and unfamiliar people doesn’t work for him.

“I don’t go to regular performances with my child because I know he can’t handle sitting, I mean we’d be there for 30 seconds and then I’d have to take him out, and as a parent you endure a lot of disdain.” Wilkinson says.

This holiday season the Colorado Symphony and Colorado Conservatory of Dance are hosting sensory friendly performances of holiday classics at Pinnacle Charter School in Federal Heights to create a space where those with special needs and their families can feel welcome.

Sensory friendly performances are specifically designed to accommodate people with sensory processing disorders like autism, or any other condition that may make it harder to enjoy a concert. The sound is lowered, house lights are kept on throughout the performance, and audience members are encouraged to react and move with what’s happening on stage.

The first event on Dec. 3 was a sensory friendly performance of a selection of holiday music such as Frosty the Snowman, Sleigh Ride and excerpts from The Nutcracker. The next sensory friendly experiences are performances of The Nutcracker on Dec. 16th.

Sensory friendly performances modify the way the audience experiences the music and dance but not the onstage performance. The performance is designed to have a “no-shushing” policy to ensure that everyone can be included in the concert space. At the Dec. 3 concert audience members were given colorful scarves, pop it’s and other fidget toys.

“It’s really important to us that everyone can access the art form.” Wilkinson says. “And while the experience is different from a typical audience experience, we still want to have the art form be as pure as it can be.”

Assistant Principal Viola with the Colorado Symphony, Catherine Beeson explains that they don’t play their instrument any differently and the dancers don’t adjust anything about the performance.

The Colorado Conservatory of Dance has been hosting these performances since 2014 and has offered dance classes for kids with special needs called Dance Expressions since 2008. The Colorado Symphony has been hosting sensory friendly performances for the last several years but only this year have the two organizations partnered.

​I am really grateful to partner with an organization that gets it.” Beeson says.

Beeson notes that traditional concerts have an “invisible keep out sign” for special needs families and they want to change that.

“We need to ask ‘who’s not in this room?’” Beeson says. “And then we need to ask ourselves why and figure out a way to get them there.”

Wilkinson has expanded their sensory friendly performances to include more dates throughout the year so there are additional opportunities for families with special needs children to experience the arts. Information on how to get tickets for the upcoming sensory friendly performance of The Nutcracker is available online at           

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