by Stephen Prutsman
Families like ours often couldn’t enjoy events together due to autism behaviors such as vocalizations, hand-flapping, rocking and anxiousness. So several years ago, after we created the nonprofit Autism Fun Bay Area (AFBA) to fund a summer camp and swim program for kids with autism, we quickly expanded its mission to encompass music and performance.
We called these “Azure” concerts and wanted them to be a safe place where our special families could enjoy some fun, relaxation, great music and socializing without the usual stresses. Our motto is “all behaviors are welcome,” which is a far cry from the reverent, hushed pin-drop atmosphere of traditional concerts. In fact we ask performers to open their minds to allow, and even embrace, external sounds and motions from our audiences. When we hear a yelp or shriek, we can think “wow – this musical moment really touched that person” or even consider the sound as an actual and integral part of the performance.
At the end of the program we leave time for a meet and greet with the performers, along with a bit of “instrument petting zoo.” For example, a participant can pluck or bow a violin or cello, or try the drums. It's true that many people with ASD have a special connection to, and sometimes an aptitude for, music. Many of our concerts also feature musicians with autism.
We’ve also gone global. When I travel for performances, I try to include an Azure performance before or after my “regular” recital or orchestra appearance. We’ve had these in such far-off lands as Kosovo, Belarus, Bulgaria and Colombia. These events have been heartwarming to me and, judging from the responses, very meaningful to presenters and the many families who have attended.
In that spirit, I'd like to close with a letter we recently received from a mom who attended a recent Azure in Baltimore with her autistic son—it captures our mission beautifully:
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for a beautiful concert for our children. From the minute we walked in the door my heart was full.... We sat down and I opened the program and started to cry when I read the words in big letters at the top, 'All behaviors welcome here... ENJOY!'
"It was a place where we could be ourselves.... I am forever grateful for this one hour of true joy that we had as a family."
"The music was serene, divine, and most of all perfect for my child…. I have never seen my child feel comfortable dancing in a public place but he was tapping his feet and swaying to the music during ‘Shake it Off’. I was overjoyed…. It was a place where we could be ourselves and our two other 'typically developing' children didn't feel like they were doing something other than enjoying music with their family.
"Usually we have to have separate activities but this was something we all could enjoy together. Our lives are hard, some a lot harder than others, and this concert made that all go away for an hour. It was bliss. I am forever grateful for this one hour of true joy that we had as a family.”
Learn more about Autism Fun Bay Area: autismfunbayarea.org
Sign up for the AFBA email list: autismfunbayarea.org/contact
Sign up for the AFBA Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/AutismFunBayArea/?ref=bookmarks
Stephen Prutsman is a concert pianist, a member of the Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area board, and co-founder of Autism Fun Bay Area. Learn more about him at stephenprutsman.com.
Read more blogging from Stephen: Why Can't We All Get Along?