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Arts & Culture

Tuned in to an Audience’s Unique Needs

UMD’s First Sensory-friendly Concert Gives Children With Autism a Gateway to the Arts

By Colleen Crowley M.Jour. ’19

Sensory-friendly concert illustration

Illustration by Jason Keisling; photo of invoke, below, by Nathan Russell

Illustration by Jason Keisling; photo of invoke, below, by Nathan Russell

Feel free to sing, clap and move in the aisles of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center this evening, when the normal restrictions of a live musical performance will be lifted for a sensory-friendly experience for children with autism.

The concert by the Maryland alumni string quartet invoke will allow families of children with autism and other disabilities the chance to enjoy the arts, free of judgment. The children, who might have trouble sitting still and quietly during a formal concert, are invited to move, vocalize and fidget as needed.Invoke

Today’s performances, part of the nationwide Azure Family Concerts series for the same broad audience, were initially scheduled for a single performance this afternoon, but sold out so quickly that a second was added.

The performances feature a range of sensory-based accommodations for those on the autism spectrum: music volume levels modulated for those bothered by loud sounds; non-fluorescent lighting for people sensitive to the subtle humming such lights make, tactile toys to help reduce tension and area rugs for children who prefer sitting on the floor.

“Sensory-friendly concerts make an environment where people feel comfortable, and where families and caregivers can be together and enjoy the performance,” said Bobby Asher, director of programming for the Visiting Artists Series at The Clarice.

It partnered with the University of Maryland Autism Research Consortium (UMARC) to bring a sensory-friendly musical experience to the university for the first time.

“This is a need in the community,” said Kathy Dow-Burger, co-director of UMARC. “When you have specialized populations like individuals on the autism spectrum, oftentimes they feel isolated. They’re expected to mainstream and fit into the neurotypical society, as opposed to being who they are.”

The positive feedback from the neurodiverse community solidified The Clarice’s commitment to continuing to host sensory-friendly arts experiences. “At The Clarice, we want to make the arts accessible to everyone,” said Asher.

Invoke also shares that goal. The string quartet, which blends bluegrass, jazz and other musical styles, was introduced to Azure founder Stephen Prutsman several years ago while in residence at Stanford University. It played its first Azure concert in 2016, when, said invoke violinist Zachariah Matteson, “The audience understood what we were going for musically, in a way we hadn’t experienced before.”

For their performances at the University of Maryland, Matteson said invoke simply hopes that, “people come away with a little bit of joy from music.”

Tickets to the 7 p.m. concert are free, and can be found on The Clarice website.



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