Faculty from U-M, MSU work together to create autism-friendly theater experience for children

Some things are worth more than the Ann Arbor-Lansing football rivalry

By Sarah M. Parlette - Associated Producer

A test performance of "POND." (Credit | Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - University of Michigan architect Sean Ahlquist and Michigan State University playwright Dionne O'Dell have put together a sensory theater experience for children with autism. 

Incorporating song, dance and interactive storytelling, “POND” moves away from traditional plot-based theater and uses multisensory and social interactions to help its audiences experience theater. 

Currently being workshopped and practiced at Michigan State University’s Arena Theater,” POND” has adjusted lighting and interactive spaces and screens for children with autism spectrum disorder to touch and play with. 

The new production ties in Ahlquist’s research on the interactions between child behavior and the environment with O’Dell’s history in creating sensory theater experiences.

A test performance of "POND." (Credit | Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography)

Written and directed by O’Dell, a faculty member of MSU’s theater department who has written other participatory-friendly pieces, “POND” uses a 3D structure with images projected onto a web of screens and movable pieces of framework. Actors interact with the children as characters, like a pelican or frog, and invite the children to engage with them as they continue on an adventure. Children are encouraged to interact with actors, handle objects and play along with things in the pond. 

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Ahlquist, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, has personal inspiration for the sensory production -- his daughter, Ara, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when she was very young. Much of the work for “POND” has been initiated from working with her and the challenges she faces.

"Each child that has autism is different, but what many have in common is that 60-90% of them have a hyper-awareness to sensory stimuli," Ahlquist said. 

"Some kids are very sensitive to loud sounds or bright lights while others, like Ara, respond enthusiastically to strong tactile sensations. Receiving pressure, like being wrapped in a heavy blanket, excites her, allowing us to turn her hypersensitivity into a beneficial tool for reinforcing play and social interaction.”

In 2018, O’Dell and Ahlquist, while attending a conference, were introduced by a mutual friend who thought they should work together.

The 3D structure used during test performances of "POND." (Credit | Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography)

The two left the UM-MSU rivalry behind as their work for “POND” brings together the unconventional pairing of theater and architecture to create an experience for children who may normally be excluded or overstimulated by traditional theater productions. 

“POND” is anticipated to be ready for presentation in spring 2020.

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