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A special needs mom's story

Sesame Street Live and J
Inseparable. Friends for life. Mentor and friend. Comfort and joy. Words really can’t describe the joy, love, learning and comfort that Sesame Street Live shows have given our son (and through him, our whole family) over the last 18 years. You see, J is “Special” (the medical field would term him autistic). He doesn’t learn like others. He doesn’t care about material goods, or money or most things in the world as reported on the news. He didn’t talk until years after his peers. At 22, he still can’t sign his name. He will never marry or drive a car or work a regular job. Sesame Street Live has been a gift to him and to us.
We have taken J to multiple shows every year ever since we realized that the characters reached him in a way that we could not. He brushes his teeth because Grover was able to convey the importance in a way that humans could not. He knows people don’t stop loving you if you are grouchy because he knows that everyone on Sesame Street loves Oscar. The predictability of the characters and their traits is very comforting to J, but also help him to identify and handle those same traits in the real world. When the inevitable meltdown occurs because J has trouble with emotions, we leverage the show stories (‘remember when Bert was so frustrated with Ernie?’) and that helps him cope with the challenge of the moment. They are much more than shows to J and to us. Unlike other live shows, there are lessons and gifts in these characters and the messages they bring to life.
Over the years, we have learned a few tips and the shows have evolved in ways that are very supportive for special kids like J. The most important thing we learned early on was that we could increase J’s comfort and security at the shows by asking him to wear earplugs. The shows are not overly loud, but they can feel that way to a sensitive kid like ours. We buy the earplugs at the hardware store in the lawnmower accessories section. They have soft yellow earplugs connected by a semicircle of orange plastic. J can easily put them on and take them off, leaving them hanging around his neck; he has total control over the level of sound he wants to hear. We’ve had the good fortune to give away many sets over the years when we notice another special child in the audience.
Another tip is to understand how your child would most like to enjoy the show – maybe the first show you might want to sit further back, so the characters appear smaller (more like watching on TV). Or maybe your child is like J, and doesn’t have a fully integrated experience without getting a hug or high five from one of the characters. Each spot in the theater/arena provides a unique experience, so pick the best place for your child based on his/her needs.
If interacting with the characters is important, then definitely plan to purchase the Sunny Seats package. This program was a gift from heaven for our family. This program lets you in early and your child gets to meet one or two of the characters in an informal and much smaller setting. Photos, hugs, talking - the characters follow the child’s lead. J loves telling the characters about one of their stories and they always nod and gesture enthusiastically, leaving J with the satisfaction of knowing he’s shared a special moment with them.
To encourage J to read, write and communicate, we suggested he write letters to the Sesame Street Live characters. These were initially just one or two words on a crayon picture, but over the years, this has grown into a full letter and storybook creation that J lovingly prepares in advance of his visit to the show. The cast and crew love receiving pictures and notes from their special audience members.
Over the years we have seen many of the same “special” families at the shows. We always recognize each other, and it has been a treat to see familiar faces in the audience, a little like a reunion. It can be an isolating experience to be the parent of an autistic child, and having the chance to share an experience and support each other at the shows has been very welcome. While our child - now adult - is autistic, we’ve seen many other special needs accommodated with care and respect, whether an emotional issue, or one of mobility or vision. I’ve never felt uncomfortable asking for assistance from the venue staff and they have always provided the needed accommodations. While not planned, we also received the unexpected benefit of gaining many friends we now consider our arena families – the ushers and security and box office folks at our local venues have seen J grow from age 3 to 22. They look forward to his annual visits and make him feel comfortable and familiar. As his mom, I can relax because I know they “know” him and are part of my support team.
Sesame Street started back in the 70s with a strong focus on diversity, way before that was “cool”. Sesame Street Live shows continue to embody that acceptance - that we are all different, and yet all the same. It is a place of fun, respect and entertainment. It is a place for our special kids to be unique. I’ve had so many parents of what seemed like ‘normal’ kids approach me at intermission or after the show to say thank you for bringing J to the show. They had so much fun watching him enjoy himself. Now that he’s 6 feet tall and 22 years old, hearing those parents share and celebrate J’s special moments is … well, just special.
I hope my story can ease any apprehensions about taking your child to the live show. As I write this, J is listening to the CD from the latest Sesame Street Live show we saw last weekend. Sesame Street Live truly rocks!
Beth Martinko