Inclusive Theatre Festival 2016

Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who joined us for Seesaw Theatre’s First Annual Inclusive Theatre Festival! We could not have asked for a better group of individuals, or a better way to start off what we hope will be a yearly occurrence. For those who were not able to join us, we wanted to share how the day went.

We began the morning with some words from Christina Layton, Seesaw’s Internal Education Director and the driving force behind this event, and Maddie Napel, our Executive Director.

We went into a round table discussion with our guests for the day:

Gretta Berghammer, Theatre Director at the University of Iowa

Julia deBettencourt, Program Director at Snow City Arts Foundation

Claire Huntingtion, Founder of Bluelaces Theatre Company

Erica Foster, Accessibility Programmer at Lifeline Theatre Company

Hilary Marshall, North Shore Studio Manager for Arts of Life

Alex Mauney, Access and Inclusion Manager for Red Kite at The Chicago Children’s Theatre

We were able to hear a bit about what each of our guests does, how they became involved with accessibility in the arts, moments that have stood out to them in their careers, etc.

After the round table, some of Seesaw’s Teaching Artists presented us with a sensory workshop, similar to what they would bring into a school. Together, we went aboard a ship for a kinesthetic trip to an island, where we experienced some of the sounds, tastes, sights, and textures on the island.



In the break that followed, many festival participants tried out the activity Arts of Life had brought for us – making and decorating paper dolls based on Arts of Life founding artist Veronica Cuculich’s “baby dolls.”


Long-time Seesaw friend Ira Kriston gave our keynote speech, telling us about his life, his experiences, and his deep love of music.

After lunch, we came back together for a presentation from Bluelaces founder and Seesaw alum Claire Huntington on starting a theatre company, finding support, and connecting with the community. She gave us some great insights on the devising process in a professional setting, which led into a larger conversation in the group about how to spread multi-sensory shows and the challenges and possibilities with creating guides or scripts.



Arts of Life screened “Life and Where I’m at: The Life and Art of Veronica Cuculich,” a documentary on a founding artist, her work, and the story behind their organization. We also got to see their beautiful display of the baby dolls we’d worked on!


We finished off the day with a screening of Red Kite’s documentary, “The Red Kite Project.”

We hope to see you next year!


The Summer Access Group at Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory


The Summer Access Group at Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory

A note from our Executive Director, Maddie Napel



Three years ago this September, I arrived at Northwestern University as an eager and excited freshman. Somewhere in my first few days on campus—amidst the flurry of move-in, orientation, and winter-gear shopping—I heard about Seesaw Theatre (then TSWA) and decided to get involved.

I was first motivated to join, as were many of us on Seesaw’s Executive Board, by a family connection. My brother, Walt, has cerebral palsy and has long struggled to access the performing arts because of his communication and behavioral challenges. Walt adores music and performance—knows every Eric Clapton song ever written and screams with enthusiasm when songs end climactically—but unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for my family to find live performance venues where he will be accepted for who he is.

To put it simply, the work I do for Seesaw, I do for my brother Walt. I know Walt will never attend a Seesaw Theatre workshop or production, the four-hour flight from San Francisco to Chicago being too much for him to manage, but he has always been my motivation nonetheless.

Flash forward to this spring, when Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory (PVTC) invited me to use my experience with Seesaw to pilot a new summer theater program designed to reach young people with physical and developmental differences. I was thrilled! Here was a chance to take the Seesaw model and implement it in my hometown, among the redwood trees and rolling hills of the San Francisco Bay Area. And I would do so at PVTC, within an established and successful summer camp structure and alongside a team of gifted teaching artists committed to helping young people realize their creative potential! I’ve worked there every summer of college. It’s a wonderful company (learn more at Still, the best part of this invitation: My brother, who lives in a group home nearby, would be able to participate.

PVTC’s Summer Access Group, as we named the program, met twice this July. These wonderful young people with physical and developmental differences came first on the weekend to participate in a Seesaw-esque multisensory creative drama. Our drama was about superheroes, which gave us way of exploring PVTC’s summer-long theme of empowerment. Access Group members returned to campus the following Thursday morning to attend the Relaxed Previews of Annie KIDS. and Box, the camp performances of their neurotypical peers. We called these previews “relaxed,” as we removed sudden or surprising sound effects, left the audience lights on at a low level, and invited our Access Group members and their families to enjoy themselves free from expectations of “appropriate audience behavior.”

In conjunction with this program, I taught a series of workshops on inclusion and accessibility to the young camper-performers in Annie KIDS and Box. These young people, ages 6-13, grappled with these concepts with sensitivity and maturity. With the youngest campers, we talked about how it feels to be left out on the playground and how important it is to make sure everyone feels welcome and included. We talked about the young people in the Summer Access Group who would be coming to their show on Thursday and how they might behave differently than a typical audience would. I asked these littlest campers if they could agree to be kind and inclusive, even if the behavior of the Summer Access Group seemed weird or strange. One incoming third grader exclaimed, “Of course! It’s because they’re people too, right?”

With the older campers, we discussed the timeline of disability rights activism in the United States and brainstormed lists of ways theater can be exclusive (on the basis of ability, but also on the basis of race, gender, socio-economic status, and many other identity markers). These older campers then problem-solved, generating their own interventions to make theater more inclusive. Hearing these articulate young people talk about the importance of putting more Arab American stories onstage and offering the option of gender neutral dressing rooms to young people in theater… It gave me hope.

My brother Walt walked out of the theater on Thursday morning with a huge smile on his face, signing the word “more” over and over again in ASL. It was a proud moment for me as a teaching artist, and my proudest moment ever as a sister.  

Thank you to Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory and Seesaw Theatre for all you did to make this moment possible, and for all you continue to do to make the world a more inclusive place. Now on to my senior year at Northwestern and my last year with Seesaw Theatre! Let’s make it a great one.



Accessible Theatre in Chicago - Lifeline Theatre


Accessible Theatre in Chicago - Lifeline Theatre

A (third person) note from publicity director Becca Ehlers:


Theatres all over Chicago offer accessible programming – touch tours, ASL, open captioning, etc. However, sensory-friendly shows are still extremely rare. At this time, Chicago Children’s Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, and Blue Man Group are the only groups offering them.

Lifeline Theatre began offering sensory-friendly performances in fall of 2015. I spoke to Erica Foster, Operations Director at Lifeline Theatre, to learn more about how Lifeline developed the program.

According to Ms. Foster, Lifeline’s move towards more accessible theatre began two years ago, after attending a workshop by Jackalope Theatre on storefront theatres adding touch tours (a pre-show presentation that allows visually-impaired patrons to physically interact with costume and set pieces, to enhance their experience of the performance). Lifeline Theatre saw all the ways in which they could become more accessible, and formed a three-year plan to increase all access programming.

Initially, the prospect of adding sensory-friendly shows seemed “scary,” said Foster. “We’re not trained to respond to a meltdown” or other issues that may come up.

So they got some outside help. PACTT: Connecting People with Autism to their Communities has become a major resource for Lifeline. Lifeline initially went to them for advice on how to prepare for audiences with autism and other developmental differences, and how to respond if anything comes up during a show, but PACTT has become a big part of Lifeline’s sensory-friendly performances. PACTT previews the shows to give feedback on potential changes to make, as well as helping out during the performances, usually sending four volunteers to assist during shows.

Of course, it’s been a learning process, for Lifeline and for PACTT. During the first sensory-friendly performance Lifeline did, for Mr. Popper’s Penguins, an audience member became so excited about the penguin puppets being used that he ran onto the stage, through the backstage area, out into the lobby, and back to his seat. Now there’s a spotter by the stage.

While we talk a lot about sensory-friendly theatre, what does making a show sensory-friendly mean? To put it simply, Foster describes it as “taking the edge off of everything,” rather than removing every potential sensory trigger. All sound is brought down by 20% and house lights are left up to help balance out the lighting effects. Because everyone has different sensory needs and different triggers, Lifeline puts together a scene-by-scene guide for parents and caregivers that notes any moments that could be triggering to the audience member (loud noises, a dramatic lighting change, etc).

Of course, some moments in the shows may need to be altered, but one of the biggest surprises for Foster has been how few changes need to be made. “If I think we’ll need to change fifteen moments, the experts come in and tell us we’ll need to change two.”

And while Lifeline has become more confident with each performance, so have their audience members. A quiet area is provided during the show for anyone who needs a break, but as kids come back and are more comfortable with the space, the need for the quiet area has drastically decreased.

Lifeline is currently averaging about 40 people per sensory-friendly performance, which is about half of the house capacity for the theatre and allows audience members the freedom to move around a bit or maintain personal space.

From Lifeline’s experiences, it seems that the demand is there and the results are attainable. So why are sensory-friendly performances so rare?

Foster attributes it to misconceptions about sensory-friendly performances. “There’s a lack of awareness…about what they really are and what they really take.” Another issue, she notes, is a perception that you have to “remove the theatrics” for a sensory-friendly performance – something that Lifeline has found not to be the case.

This season, Lifeline’s sensory-friendly programming has been for their KidSeries shows, with the goal of focusing on shows that would be engaging for a wider developmental range. However, they will be adding a sensory-friendly performance for one of the mainstage shows in their 2016-2017 season, A Wrinkle in Time.

While experiencing live theatre is something no one should have to miss out on, Lifeline is especially invested in the ways that sensory-friendly shows allow for families to bond. Going out as a family can be difficult when a member has special needs; by providing sensory-friendly programming, Lifeline hopes to offer “an experience for the whole family without judgement.”

Thank you to Erica Foster for all of her help, and thank you to Lifeline Theatre for all of the amazing work you do.

For more information on Lifeline's accessible performances -

For more information on bringing accessibility into theatres, contact the Theatre Development Fund -


ANNOUNCING.....Seesaw's Spring Show!


ANNOUNCING.....Seesaw's Spring Show!

A note from Delaney Burlingame, director of Seesaw's Spring 2017 show!

Seesaw Theatre Presents: Under the Big Top, Coming this Spring!

When I think of some of the most quintessential experiences of childhood, the circus always comes to mind. It’s a kid’s wonderland, filled with color, excitement, and more cotton candy than you could possibly imagine. Yet for many of Seesaw’s audience members, the circus is an event they will never attend. It is over-stimulating and often inaccessible. The crowds can be loud and rude, with no patience or understanding. Performers appear, disappear, and burst through the air with no warning. Cannons blast and lions roar, filling the tent with noise. It’s a space that is neither warm or inviting to individuals on the spectrum.

With our show this year we are looking to change that reality. What I am seeking to create is a controlled spectacle. Every child deserves to experience the human marvel that is the circus. The suspense of the tight rope walker, the flight of the trapeze artist, the enormity of the elephant, all mingling with the tantalizing scent of popcorn, taffy, and a pie in the face. Our job is to find a way to introduce those stimuli in an approachable and contained fashion, without losing any of their joy or energy. I am a firm believer in embracing the unexpected in theatre. The key with Seesaw’s audience is to make those unexpected moments celebratory and empowering rather than frightening or overwhelming. With this concept in mind, the circus is the perfect challenge.

As I step out of my role as Education Director and put on my director hat this year, I am hungry to redefine how a Seesaw show feels, breathes, and looks. The circus is an event filled with magic and mystery. Much like Seesaw it rolls into town for one spectacular week, then folds itself up and disappears, leaving its audience with memories of laughter, fanfare, and wonder. I am eager to unpack that mystery, rearrange its pieces, and set it spinning for our vibrant audiences in a way built just for them. It proves no easy task, but I believe one filled with discovery and delight. Come along for the wacky ride and join us Under the Big Top this spring!


Socialization Through the Arts With the EASE Programs


Socialization Through the Arts With the EASE Programs


A post by our wonderful outreach director, Vanessa Strahan!

EASE: Everyday Arts for Special Education. And that’s what it does – it’s a program designed to make it easier for students with ASC and other developmental disabilities to communicate, socialize, and achieve academically and artistically by integrating arts education into everyday schooling. Teachers whose classrooms are participating in the program receive a series of training workshops, as well as getting a lot of in school co-teaching support to strengthen their base of knowledge and skills on fostering social-emotional learning skills, developing game-based and engaging curriculum, differentiation, and culturally responsive and inclusive practices.

The Numbers:

The Inception of the Program – 2010

Number of students served – over 50,000

Number of educators and partners participating – 1,700

Number of cities EASE operates in – 2

That’s right – only two cities. New York City and Los Angeles. The EASE methodology was first made possible in partnership with District 75 – the largest special education district in the US, housed in NYC – and a Professional Development for Arts Educators grant from the US Department of Education, which lasted from 2008-2011. EASE’s pilot program was incarnated specifically for students with ASC and was called Communication and Socialization Through the Arts, or CASTA. After the success of this program, the curriculum was expanded to include students with a broader range of disabilities and was renames EASE.

The US Department of Education recognized the success and impact of the program in the District 75 schools and awarded EASE a $4.6 million dollar Investing in Innovation Award, which was matched with a $500,000 contribution from the National Philanthropic Trust from 2010-2015. In these years, EASE drew the attention of the John F. Kennedy Center’s Very Special Arts division, which provided professional development and school-based coaching sessions throughout the LA Unified School District from 2012-2015.

EASE is now in the middle of another PDAE grant, which lasts until 2019, working in NYC’s District 75 and the LAUSD, focusing on incorporating technology for both student and teacher learning.

I know this was a lot of information, and really it’s just a long winded and detailed way of saying what in incredibly impactful program EASE has been in District 75 and the LAUSD. And think of what an impact the program could have if it was in every school with a special education program in the US. The integration of arts education into general education classrooms has been successful across the country, why should special education classrooms not receive the same opportunities? Especially when the hands on, game and communication based curriculums seen so often in arts education programs can be so particularly beneficial to cultivating the skills students with developmental differences can find more difficult than neuro-typical students.

Final evaluation results are expected this summer, but the initial numbers look fantastic. The program has yielded statistically significant improvements on students’ communication and socialization skills, has increased student motivation, attention span, self-confidence, positive risk-taking, and general interest in their school programs, as well as improving general arts and academic proficiency. I personally can’t wait to see the official numbers, which I hope are an indicator to the U.S. Department of Education and to all educational institutions across the U.S. and the world that programs like EASE should be a standard part of special education programs.

If you want to read more about EASE, please visit their website at:

And if you want to get in contact with your state or federal congressional representatives, school board representatives, or other Department of Education officials, please use this resource to do so and to show them how much we care about getting programs like EASE into classrooms:



The Prospector Theater - Finding Strengths in Differences


The Prospector Theater - Finding Strengths in Differences

Our business manager, Claire, looked into employment opportunities for individuals with developmental differences and checked out a business that has made neurodiversity a priority.

As Seesaw’s new business manager, I think about money a lot. I’m supposed to. As a student, I think about money a lot. We all do. Will I be able to find work in a field that I’m passionate about, while still putting food on my table? Am I getting a degree in the right thing to land the job that I want? What is the job that I want? It’s easy to fall into a never ending spiral of questions like these. However, we often forget that non-neurotypical people do not always get to ask questions like these. The statistics are staggering. Over one third of 20-somethings on the autism spectrum have never held a job. According to numbers reported by the National Survey for Americans with Disabilities in 2010, 59% of the general population aged 16 to 64 was employed, while just 21% of adults with disabilities were. And that’s not all. There’s a social element that comes with these low numbers. Without employment, adults with developmental differences may not have a reason to leave home and be social; in fact, they may not be able to afford social excursions.

And then, there are businesses like The Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, CT. The Prospector is a non-profit,  “dedicated to providing meaningful employment opportunities for adults with disabilities through the operation of a premium, four screen, first-run movie theater. Employees of the Prospector, referred to as Prospects, are encouraged to sparkle, shine, and transform their passions into professions.”

I was lucky enough to sit down with Valerie Jensen, the founder and visionary behind the business to talk about The Prospector and the importance of meaningful employment for adults with developmental differences.

First and foremost, The Prospector is a business. While they do operate as a non-profit, every decision and hire that they make is examined for sustainability.

While Ms. Jensen understands the great need for employment for people with developmental differences, she emphasized that every employee has a purpose. “We are not just creating work for the sake of work.” And in this decision to make sure that every prospect has a specific and important purpose in the business, they get passionate employees in every aspect of the theater’s functions. Ms. Jensen said, “You have to harness that passion, we call it sparkle. You will never get anyone to work as hard as when they’re doing something they love.”

What does this mean? This means that when Frank came looking for work, he was able to channel his obsession for tires into balloon sculpting. Upon my visit, there was a partially done balloon sculpture in the lobby, in celebration of Finding Dory. This means that there is someone who is excited about baking the treats for concessions and someone who is excited about collecting ticket stubs and telling you to enjoy the movie. I met one employee who loves social media and found her passion on the theater’s Facebook page. I met another, who had painstakingly mastered an industrial embroidery machine, and he showed me the towels that he was putting the theater’s logo on in preparation for an event later this summer.

    There is an element of care that comes with a business like this one. Not being able to answer the phone is not a reason to not get a job at the box office; rather it is reason to practice. And whether it takes a day, a week, or a month, to be able to pick up that phone when it rings, success is always a cause for celebration. Not wearing deodorant to work is not a cause for termination, but rather, a way into a conversation about hygiene and what is appropriate in a workplace.

Valerie says, “Everyone gets immediate feedback and support.” And support she does. Walking around the theater with her felt like a celebration, rather than a Tuesday morning. She said that many people have asked her how they too can open a movie theater or a business like hers. And she doesn’t have a solid answer for them. She describes opening The Prospector as, “the perfect storm” in that there was no other movie theater for ten miles, the location was in the center of town, and very walkable, and she had connections and experience from her previous work with an organization called SPHERE.

However, she noted that the way she runs her business could be applied to any industry. In fact, because of the passion of her employees, they have been exploring businesses in gourmet popcorn, cleaning, and embroidery, as a result of discoveries made in the two years since The Prospector’s opening.

Most importantly, Val notes, “We’re not nice. We’re just doing what’s right AND makes good business sense.”

If you’re in the tri-state area this summer, be sure to check out a movie with Seesaw’s new friends at the Prospector Theater:



Announcing Seesaw Theatre's 2016-2017 Season....


Announcing Seesaw Theatre's 2016-2017 Season....

Inclusive Theatre Festival

Saturday, November 19th

Location and Time TBA

Join us this fall for Seesaw Theatre’s first ever Inclusive Theatre Festival, a fun-filled and educational celebration of the growing field of inclusive theatre! We invite our families, friends, and the whole of the Northwestern community to participate in the events of the day, which will include sensory drama workshops led by our cohort of Seesaw teaching artists and a panel discussion with professionals working in the field of inclusive arts. These events will be created by and for Northwestern students. We hope to see you there!


Seesaw Theatre Presents: Lunchbox

Winter 2017

Location and Date/Time TBA

Seesaw Theatre is excited to announce our brand new winter quarter event: Lunchbox! Join us for this day-long family workshop that will strive to create meaningful, arts-initiated interactions between children with physical and cognitive differences and their parents and siblings, build support networks for parents, and siblings, and provide a multi sensory theatrical experience in which the whole family can participate. Our morning will start with siblings, parents, and children splitting up into groups. These groups, led by our teaching artists, will work together to construct family "lunch boxes"— interactive, multi sensory boxes filled with memories and materials important to each family. At noon, families will reconvene for lunch, while our teaching artists and designers assemble the morning’s crafts into the finished lunch boxes. These completed crafts will provide a centerpiece for the afternoon’s multi sensory theatrical adventure, designed to foster bonding between siblings, parents, and children. 


Seesaw Theatre Presents: Spring MainStage (Theme TBA)

May 10th- 13th, 2017

Shanley Pavilion, Times TBA

We are excited to return this spring with our fifth annual mainstage event! We are so happy to feature a full multi sensory production for young people with autism spectrum condition and other physical and developmental differences again this year. Keep on the lookout for an announcement regarding this year's theme. We can't wait to share all the places we will go!




Cognitive Differences Terminology


A quick note on terminology: many of this is subjective. Every person and family has their own language preferences, and while I’ve compiled information based on some of the most common trends, it is always best to ask individuals what they prefer!


The difference between “learning,” “developmental,” and “cognitive” differences:

Cognitive and developmental differences tend to fall into two separate categories, while learning differences tend to encompass elements of the other two. One easy way to differentiate between the three is age of diagnosis: developmental disabilities can be diagnosed in very early childhood, while learning disabilities are generally diagnosed between the age of five and adulthood, and cognitive disabilities can be diagnosed at any age.


Cognitive Differences:


The term “cognitive differences” is commonly used to refer to IQ. People with cognitive differences often take longer to complete academic tasks than people with typical cognitive function and can have difficulty focusing. Cognitive differences can be identified at any age (dementia is an example of a cognitive difference that is not diagnosed until old age).


Developmental Differences:


The term “developmental differences” refers only to conditions diagnosed before the age of 22. Developmental differences are measured by difficulty meeting developmental milestones (e.g. age of talking, writing, etc.).


Learning Disabilities:


The term “learning disabilities” refers to conditions that are diagnosed before adulthood and measured by IQ. Learning disabilities can often encompass both developmental and cognitive differences, and often result in atypical academic achievement. They are diagnosed based on an IQ test and another test (Vineland Adaptive Behaviour Scale-II) that measures communication, daily living skills, socialization, motor skills, and maladaptive behavior Index.


The DSM-V defines learning disabilities as having three main characteristics:


  1. diagnosed before adulthood
  2. significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information and learn new skills
  3. impaired social functioning (difficulty coping individually as a member of society)


Categorization of Learning Disabilities: PMLD, SLD, MLD, SpLD


The different types of learning disabilities, Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD), Severe Learning Disabilities (SLD), Mild Learning Disabilities (MLD), and Specific Learning Disabilities (SpLD) are commonly categorized in two different ways, one according to scale and one to criteria.


Scale Model:



The types of learning disabilities are organized by severity:


PMLD “Profound” > SLD “Severe” > MLD “Mild”



"Profound" refers specifically to an IQ under 20. People with profound difficulties often have mobility difficulties and complex health needs. Many are non-verbal.




"Severe" refers specifically to an IQ under 70. People with severe difficulties often need assistance with everyday tasks and have limited verbal communication (more than people with profound difficulties).



"Mild" refers to people who do not need assistance with everyday tasks but may have difficulty with complex/analytical thought.




Criteria Model:



"Severe Learning Disability (SLD)" refers mostly to IQ-- to cognitive/"intellectual" impairments.  People with SLDs often also have difficulty with mobility, communication, and acquisition of self-help skills. The learning disabilities also span all subjects in school (people with "Specific disabilities" may have difficulty grasping a single subject-- dyslexia is a good example of a specific disability).


"PMLD" refers to people with SLDs who also have a range of other disabilities-- medical conditions, sensory impairments, etc. Most of these people require a high level of support, both for learning and personal care. The main criterion for PMLD is having more than one disability.



"Complex disability" refers to people with more than one disability who may or may not have a learning disability. So PMLD encompasses both SLD and complex disabilities, but a person with an SLD or complex disabilities does not necessarily have PMLD.



Autism Spectrum Conditions:



"Autism Spectrum Condition" refers to a specific neurodevelopmental diagnosis that includes:



  1. restrictive/repetitive (or niche) behavior, interests, and activities
  2. difficulty with social interaction and communication
  3. [heightened or dull sensitivity to sensory experiences]-- the other two are the main ones, but this is relevant to Seesaw!



This definition is constantly evolving. It used to encompass four separate conditions-- autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)-- but now labels them all "ASCs." This definition doesn't include the cognitive/intellectual components of learning disabilities.



“Condition” vs. “Disorder” vs. “Difference” vs. “Disability”


The language around ASCs is also constantly evolving. The word “condition” in Autism Spectrum Condition was added recently, to replace “disorder.” The change was an effort to emphasize the difficulties associated with developmental differences in a world that has been slow to accommodate them-- as “difference” does not fully--while maintaining that ASCs are not deficits but simply forms of neurodiversity-- as “disorder” and “disability” fail to do. While “Autism Spectrum Condition” has become the official term, language around ASCs is still subjective, and many people in the ASC community prefer certain terms over others.


As you probably noticed above, official documentation is slow to catch up with colloquial language chance. “Disability” is still widely used in clinical practice (“learning disability” is an official term, as are PMLD, SLD, SpLD, and MLD). “Difference” is slowly becoming the norm when describing cognitive and developmental processes.



“High-functioning” vs. “Low-functioning”


These are terms that are used to differentiate between people with ASCs or other disabilities-- most often on the basis of language acquisition and IQ (above or below 80). While these terms are used in clinical practice, many families find them unspecific and prefer not to use them. While there is no official definition, generally, individuals with “low-functioning” ASCs are (compared to those with “high-functioning ASCs) unable to complete daily tasks without assistance, less likely to speak, more likely to have epilepsy, more likely to have memory problems, more likely to engage in repetitive behavior, and generally have IQs under 80. Many of these qualities are both complicated and subjective, and it is often difficult to classify people based on the criteria-- this is why, as mentioned above, most families prefer to refer to specific qualities (such as speech or IQ) rather than grouping a complicated web of scaled criteria into “high-functioning” or “low-functioning.”


Further Reading:

Terminology guide (learning disabilities)

New terminology criteria


Complex Care Definitions







As director of Seesaw’s fourth annual production, I am ridiculously excited to share our 2016 theme: EARTH.

Allow me to step back in time and give you a picture of young Emily circa elementary school: I was obsessed with the weather. I tuned in to Weather on the 1s at 7:01, 7:11, and 7:21 before being shuffled off to school; I checked out large picture books from the library about meteorology; I explained in detail to anyone who would listen my (basic) understanding of how thunderstorms happen. The changes in the weather from the micro--the moment a drizzle gives way to a downpour--to the macro--the subtle oncoming of crisp autumn air--were both predictable and thrilling. These shifts in the sky, sea, and land follow calculable patterns and still amaze.

A professor of mine once shared her key advice in relation to puppetry that has since become a mantra for me: “the audience is hungry for transformation.” The earth’s dramatic changes from day to day, season to season, and millennia to millennia provide us with rife opportunities to go on journeys together with our audience. These natural stories in particular feel so perfect for Seesaw’s audiences because they are not predicated on knowledge of societal conventions and human interaction.

Every year Seesaw seeks to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary by using all our senses in new ways. After doing research over the summer on theatre and developmental differences in the U.K. I’m eager to explore the ways our show can live in more abstract worlds than we've inhabited in the past. With EARTH as the ensemble’s starting point we already have endless sensory experiences to draw from as we devise a new production: how do we use the tools available to us to depict rain, snow, grass, wind, sunset, moonlight, mountains, rivers? Traveling to faraway landscapes is a privilege that is restricted to only some based on resources and accessibility. With the magic of theatre we are able to take our audiences wherever we want on the planet.

Seesaw seeks to both affirm and challenge: we start by creating an environment in which our audience can interact with the ensemble, the space, and the story according to their own needs and desires. Here we invite them to listen, to learn, and to connect in ways they might not have before. EARTH may guide our audience into familiar territory: what does a thunderstorm sound like? How does the rain feel? And from this point of connection we can go anywhere. How does it feel to be the lava inside a volcano? What does a waterfall smell like? What's the color of the sound of crickets?

As Seesaw picks up momentum towards our spring production, each new idea is followed by many more questions. I invite you on this journey with me from auditions to rehearsals to performance, from Evanston to the mountains, the ocean, the skies, and beyond!


Hugs and Celebrations and Everything in Between


Hugs and Celebrations and Everything in Between

“Life-changing” is an overused phrase. There are plenty of things I’ve experienced – plenty of things we’ve all experienced – that are unbelievably awe-inspiring, perspective-altering, or just plain amazing, but too often those moments (and much lesser moments) are hyperbolically described as having changed someone’s life. Exactly what about your existence did that play/book/movie/vacation change? Are you really an entirely different person than you were before?

So when I say that Seesaw Theatre changed my life, I’m not using that phrase lightly.

I was lucky enough to be an adventure guide in the very first Seesaw production (at that point it was called Theatre Stands with Autism). I walked into the room on our first day with no idea what to expect: I had very little experience working with differently abled people, even less experience devising multisensory theater, and absolutely no clue whether anything we were doing would work. I had spent my time at Northwestern heavily involved with drama education and creating theater for young audiences, and I wanted to add another skill to my resume. That was it. I definitely did not expect my life to be changed.

Two years later, I’m starting a company to bring the kind of work we started with Seesaw to New York. It’s called Bluelaces. I think it’s safe to say that the rest of our executive board also had life-changing experiences with “Diving In” and “Strung Along” (last year’s Seesaw production), and hopefully we’re creating a space for many more people to do the same.

Okay. But what about Seesaw did it?

Since I started making theater for people with developmental differences, I noticed myself taking longer to get dressed in the morning because I would get distracted by the feel of a sweater in my closet. I stopped listening to music on my way to class or work because there was so much to hear just walking down the street. As I began to understand what it meant to create multisensory theater, my whole world became more multisensory. I learned from our audiences that hearing and touching and smelling are just as important – oftentimes more – than seeing. There was an entire language that I couldn’t understand until I forced myself, in the interest of creating something unique and artful for this population, to listen. I started to explore my day-to-day rituals for all the sensory experiences they had to offer, and, in no small way, that has changed my life.

It’s that change in my life that makes me wonder why this population has been cast aside. There is no less or more about the way they experience the world. It’s different, and it’s a difference from which we can and should learn, because there’s a whole lot to learn. There is no less or more, and so there should be no less space for their unique and valuable minds to be expressed. We often talk about theater as a way to impart a message or a lesson, but for me, it feels a lot more special when all parties involved get to learn something from each other. When was the last time you heard of a Shakespeare performer learning life-changing lessons from their audience?

I had the privilege of returning to Northwestern this week to see an early run of this year’s production, “In the Game.” It does what Seesaw has done in the past: it creates a safe and exciting space for audiences to engage with all of their senses – or not, if they so choose. But something about this year was different. It’s so fun. “Diving In” was fun, “Strung Along” was fun, but “In the Game” is fun. I couldn’t articulate the difference until Daphna summed it up by describing “In the Game” as a big celebration, as opposed to “Strung Along,” which was a big, comforting hug.

That’s huge. When you’re dealing with a field whose canon is as small as this one, you need hugs and you need celebrations and you need everything else in between. The three shows that Seesaw has created – and the countless more that they (and the Bluelaces crew here in New York) will create – have already contributed in massive ways by creating not just a larger volume of work for people with cognitive differences but a wider breadth of work both with regard to content and to tone. Why shouldn’t this population have the ability to experience a big hug and a big party, if that’s what they want? They’ve opened up so many new possibilities for me, and I’m so grateful that we get to open up a few new possibilities for them.



From Accessibility to Inclusivity


From Accessibility to Inclusivity

Imagine what life would be like if you could not see. How is your world different? What would it be like to interact with the world and those around you? What methods would you have to implement in order do carry out the necessary functions of life? Your hands might now be your eyes guiding you, leading you, speaking to you the stimuli they consume. Instead of reading text, you feel brail. You can’t see faces, but you can feel wrinkles and smiles and tears. The different modes in which you now interact with the world fall under “accessibility.”

The buzzwords around Seesaw and theatre like it are “accessibility” and “inclusivity.” While in the context of our organization they imply generally the same outcome, theatre for all regardless of cognitive ability, they aren’t necessarily the same. In fact I would argue, they aren’t the same at all – an idea I learned from brilliant artists and educators during my summer in D.C. and am still unpacking everyday.

Accessibility is important for all people, of all ages, in all circumstances in life. Accessibility is about ensuring that everyone has a point of entry to whatever it is you are presenting. It is about opening doors that might be shut off for some but not others. Attending a play with cultural and linguistic references different from your own might isolate you. But a preshow handout, for example, can help clarify that world of ideas for you thus making the show more accessible.

In the world of theatre for individuals with cognitive differences, accessibility is an especially hot topic and recent trend, as in the past decade or so. The regional theatres are doing it and even Broadway has taken great strides to make their theatres accessible. Accessible theatre in this sense looks much like any other piece of theatre you might go see but with key changes.

Things might be a little quieter. The lights might be a little softer. The theatre space might not even be completely dark. The audience might be allowed to talk more than what is typically considered to be appropriate. These markers are a part of the “autism-friendly” trend. From the big budget shows to even the smaller regional theatres, setting aside a number of performances specifically for families of children with cognitive differences has become the new craze. Autism-friendly productions give families relief and room to breathe because they are in a space that welcomes them for who they are and validates their experiences. Autism-friendly theatre is certainly noble and bold. But it definitely is not the end.

The next step in the evolutionary phase of this type of theatre is what I have learned to distinguish as inclusive.

Again, you are without your sight. You are at the playground. Other kids can enjoy the playground to its full potential but you find that even with brail markers and additional aid, the playground just isn’t as fun in the same way that it is to the other kids. We can’t do much to change your sight, but we can change the playground. Imagine now that on different levels of the jungle gym there are new smells, textures, or even sounds that bring the structure to life in a unique way that is specifically special to you. Perhaps the textures communicate that you are going up higher or the sounds play as you slither down on the slide. The playground is not just accessible anymore; it is inclusive.

When you’re different, it’s not fun to be reminded that you are different. But that’s often how we treat individuals with cognitive or physical differences. You can’t use the stairs in the wheelchair, so you’re rolled off to the side to ride in the clunky, steel, bumpy wheelchair elevator that feels uninviting and espouses a feeling of separation. Imagine that elevator instead looked like a time machine or played space noises. The isolation is now gone. That sense of difference is what Seesaw eradicates.

Seesaw Theatre is accessible and it is inclusive. It embraces the inherent differences of its audiences and seeks to adapt the theatre structure in a way that invites them to play, imagine, and explore with their full, unchanged hearts and minds. It gives to them experiences that resonate because the experiences are crafted to follow the ebb and flow of their thoughts and desires. The traces you find in autism-friendly theatre that signal to its spectators things are different because they are different are not evident in the work of Seesaw. Seesaw doesn’t alter preexisting work, but completely deconstructs the conventions of theatre and builds them back up to provide a piece of art that at its core is brave, daring, and courageous.

Is autism-friendly theatre bad? No. There is honorable merit in presenting a production of ‘Aladdin’ or ‘The Lion King’ to an autism-audience. Seesaw just happens to pose the question: perhaps there is more? Perhaps we can try to get closer to how a mind with autism understands the world, people, stories, and experiences. Perhaps we need to completely reimagine how we tell stories and what it even means to tell a story to an audience like this. Perhaps we need to not just find a way that we can bring those with autism into our own spaces but also create spaces that exist in this world that are especially for them. Spaces that seek to include them.

Khari Shelton


Seesaw Theatre: Blazing a Trail for a More Inclusive Art Form


Seesaw Theatre: Blazing a Trail for a More Inclusive Art Form

Seesaw Theatre? Let me confess this right up front—I am a fan.  I love this group and the work they do.  For its vision, compassion, courage, and artistry, Seesaw is a company to be celebrated.  Student initiated and student run, Seesaw represents the best of what happens at Northwestern.  Maybe the best of what happens in theatres, anywhere.


Last spring I attended the New Visions/New Voices conference at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.  This symposium is dedicated to the creation of new works and the development of trailblazing trends.  At New Visions/New Voices we heard a dynamic presentation from Talleri McRae, a Northwestern graduate and an internationally renowned expert on Inclusive Arts.  In her remarks, she told us of the newly formed International Inclusive Arts Network, a global initiative of theatre artists from such places as Hong Kong, South Africa, Ireland, Serbia, and Australia.  McRae serves as one of two USA representatives on the Core Group of the Founding Steering Committee.  The assembled audience roared its approval of this brand new network that honors theatre for ALL and has at its heart the involvement of disabled artists and/or engagement with disabled young people.  McRae was off to Warsaw the next day for the inaugural meeting of the International Inclusive Arts Network. The room was abuzz with excitement, and for many, this was something new.  Meanwhile, back in humble Shanley Pavilion on the Northwestern campus, the Seesaw Theatre Company is way ahead of the curve.  That which is being heralded globally is happening in own back yard.  A devoted group of talented, tireless undergraduates, undaunted and endlessly imaginative, is making something extraordinary happen in Evanston.


In Washington D.C., McRae challenged us as artists and educators to reframe the idea of inclusive theatre.  "We (theatre artists) can re-define disability by not embracing it as an individual impairment, but rather as an environmental limitation that can catalyze the creative artistic process."  As she spoke, her voice grew impassioned, because boundaries have always fueled creativity; limitations have always given rise to innovation.  “Inclusion is,” she asserted, “ultimately, a wildly and radically creative act.” 


Wildly creative – these are good words to describe the Seesaw Theatre.  In form and content, their plays don’t resemble anything else you will see. Hours of research and planning go into each production.  There are no published scripts for young people on the Autism spectrum, but the Seesaw team has the courage to brave the blank page and the empty space and create something entirely new, from scratch as it were. Narrative is less important than in traditional theatre – plot is loosely structured and is much less significant than the overarching adventure that the Seesaw guests will experience.  Senses come alive here – a gentle spritz of water, the touch of soft, fuzzy yarn, a song sung to the strummed accompaniment of a guitar.  Everything is child friendly. The space is designed to be safe; it’s okay to get up and move during the play.   Adventure Guides stay with the young audience members, making real connections.  Whether their guests are invited under the sea, into a world of string, or into a land of games, the experience becomes unforgettable for everyone. 


The performance I observed might better be described as 15 individual performances under the umbrella of a larger adventure.  The world was colorful, but gentle.  Each child in the audience was met at the entrance by a Seesaw company member, one who had done special preparation to meet this particular child and make her or him feel safe and welcome. Teachers sat at the perimeter of the experience, observing, while the college students and children embarked on an adventure.  The event seemed carefully structured, but only partially scripted, allowing the company members to interact authentically with the children.  The Autism spectrum remains mysterious to me, but I can tell you that there were heartfelt smiles, enthusiastic sing-a-longs, and some great, unbridled dance moves.  The college students showed endless patience and boundless resourcefulness.  And the teachers?  The ones observing?  They were frequently brushing away tears.  “This just doesn’t happen.  I’ve never seen him connect like that.”  The room was alive; hearts were full.  The power and beauty of the theatre was harnessed in the service of the children.  The children, in return, gave back.  It was impossible to see this and not be moved.


McRae has written, “I believe professional TYA can change the way an entire generation of citizens understands disability.”  She goes on to add, “I know what you are thinking—this one sounds a little lofty. Yes, it does. Yet I believe one positive choice can create endless ripples. If professional TYA companies around the globe intentionally embraced inclusive arts, where would the impact end?”  Seeing Seesaw Theatre weave its spell, one that is as beneficial for the college artists as it is for the children they serve, I can’t help but believe that McRae may be right.  Keep making ripples Seesaw Theatre.  Have faith.  You are at the vanguard, making a difference.


Rives Collins