Attending The Autism Friendly Nutcracker Show At The Lincoln Center

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I had originally toyed with the idea of putting him in a little tuxedo, complete with a monocle and walking stick. His communication device could be changed to have a British accent and we would tell the staff that he’s the Duke of Dorchester. That’ll impress ‘em.

After all, this was going to be my son’s first time at the actual live ballet. Honestly, it would be mine too. This special occasion, dripping class out the yin-yang, was a major step for my little guy in a few ways.

The idea was the brainchild of Lauren, who almost always knocks it out of the park with these events. For her son Christian’s birthday, this would be his big gift. For us, it was a chance for the typically shut-in special needs parents to live like the elites. We had tickets to the Nutcracker ballet at the Lincoln Center For The Performing Arts. Caviar? Grey Poupon? Check and check. A fine Sunday absorbing the arts? Who wouldn’t want to do that?

My son wouldn’t want to, for starters. Lucas is non-verbal with autism and, like Christian, doesn’t readily enjoy dark events that require calm and quiet. Bringing him to a place that asks for silence is like bringing Edward Scissorhands to a place with metal detectors. We would barely get through the door.

Earlier I mentioned that Lauren hits it out of the park with these things. The reason why is because of days like this. We, along with our friend Michelle, wouldn’t just be going to The Nutcracker. This was the Autism Friendly Presentation of The Nutcracker. Jackpot.

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Autism Friendly is one of the most overused phrases on Earth and, most times, it means nothing. You get “autism-friendly” barbers who think that having a fidget spinner in their junk drawer is all they need. You have dentist appointments that end in tears and reschedules. You have pediatricians who ask, “have you tried talking to him?” It’s less of an actual statement about the person’s understanding of those with ASD and more like magic words to bring in new clients.

That wasn’t the case here. The Lincoln Center was amazing. As we saw it, the show looked like it had always been geared around people like my son. There were quiet areas and workers there with calming items someone might need. For the first time in forever, we weren’t the expectations. We were the norm.

What does it mean to be the norm? Well, it means that a few minutes after sitting down, my chubby bunny boy was already trolling me for Pirate Booty. I opened up a mini bag of the puffs and placed it on his lap. That’s when karma finally came around and nailed Lucas right in the lunchbox.

Just as quickly as the snack was opened, a hand came down from behind us and buried itself in the bag. I couldn’t figure out what was happening and – I kid you not – for a moment, I thought the hand of God had come to steer us away from needless snacking.

It wasn’t that. It was a young man with autism from the row behind us, pillaging the audience for some of that Pirate Booty. His mother grabbed him before he could even pull one out of the bag.

No! No! Don’t grab that!

Then she turned to me.

 I’m so sorry.

I looked back at them with a big smile. To say I was happy might be a weird stretch. I was accepting of the situation and almost grateful for this moment of familiarity. This was someone else doing the exact thing I fear my son will do at a random TGIFridays. It was my chance to have the response that I would have always wanted.

It’s fine. No. It’s fine. Does he want one? We have extra. Here.

My caring response didn’t necessarily put this mom at ease, but it was better than what she, or I in that situation, would have expected.

No. Thank you, though. He can’t have it anyway.

Not knowing what that meant, I nodded and turned back around. For one of the first times in my life, outside of a school event, we were in a sea of our people. I contemplated trying to mobilize us all like the group in Fight Club and trying to take over New York City. But I was kind of tired.

james guttman lucas nutcracker

Just to address the elephant in the theater, I know what the expectations are when most people read “autism-friendly” in front of a show. They imagine chaos like kids screaming, parents freaking out, objects being thrown, fire, destruction, and agony. I know. I imagined it too at first.

The truth is that it was nothing like that. Don’t get me wrong, there were occasional yells from the crowd, but we were all used to them. My son screams all day long. I can read a book through it, talk on the phone, or meditate while he yells for the sake of hearing an echo. It’s part of my life. The few screeches we heard at the Lincoln Center were nothing.

At one point, a person in the crowd started making a siren sound that was so dead-on perfect that I thought it was part of the show. Little kids on stage were dancing around with characters in mice suits and I thought, “How are there police cars? This is like the 1800s or something.”

Nope. It was a guy in the crowd.

So…did Lucas love it? Uh, yeah? He was OK with it. It wasn’t his favorite thing of all time, but it wasn’t his least favorite thing. He enjoyed the parts he liked and played with his iPad, as was acceptable at a showing like this, during the parts he didn’t. 

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Rather than insisting he watch the whole thing, I instead focused on clapping. When the audience clapped, I made him clap. That was the hill I chose to die on. This kid claps as loud as he can as often as he can in as many places as he can. When it’s time to applaud the dancers, the least he could do is put his hands together.

While it started with me coaxing him to applaud, by the end, he was clapping when everyone else did. I was so proud of and glad we could work a life lesson into the already memorable day. It was an entire show built around him and I couldn’t have been more grateful.

Our kids deserve to do everything that this world has to offer. Programs like this help to make that happen. Sure, I could anxiety our way into a “typical” showing of the Nutcracker. I ‘d cross my fingers and pray to Heaven that he’s good. Then I can spend the whole time shushing him and stopping his random hand claps for fear I would have to fight a row of people. All of that could be how we spend a Sunday.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to do that this Sunday. He saw the show the way he was meant to and I couldn’t be prouder. Now we just need to pick up a monocle for next time.




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