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How a special ballet performance changed how my autistic daughter saw herself | Opinion

For families of kids with disabilities, experiencing the arts can be challenging, but transformative.

The Powers family attended a sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet.
The Powers family attended a sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet.Read moreCourtesy of Syrita Powers (custom credit)

I am the proud mother of three beautiful, intelligent little girls, and, not unlike many other kids, they have dreams, goals, ambition, and a desire to be included. I’m also the mother of three children who have disabilities.

My daughters, Madison, 10, Georgia, 8, and Logan, 6, are the light of my life. My husband and I happily looked forward to starting our family, but with the birth of each child, we realized something was off. Our sweet son Aaron Jr. passed away shortly after he was born, and we knew that our girls seemed a bit different. I’m not going to say that I didn’t cry and have sleepless nights, but we knew that we needed to be strong for our girls. We promised to fight for them to lead fulfilling lives, participate in society, and receive a proper education.

Our two youngest are nonverbal, and up until a couple of years ago were in strollers when we left the home. Our oldest is a dreamer, a visionary, and autistic. It’s not surprising that children and adults with disabilities are overwhelmingly underrepresented among performing arts audiences. Arts and culture help provide people with a better understanding of emotions, but we always felt limited about where we could go because of my children’s disabilities.

» READ MORE: How the Pa. Ballet’s sensory-friendly ‘Nutcracker’ saved one Philly family’s Christmas tradition

There is always the fear of alienation and not knowing how people and society will react to people who are different. It can feel intimidating being “that family,” so I became an advocate for my children and fought so they could experience the world around them. However, participating in community events has become much less daunting thanks to organizations that understand and help.

Art-Reach is one of those organizations. It creates, advocates for, and expands accessible opportunities in the arts so the full spectrum of society is served. The Art-Reach team taught us that leaving the house didn’t have to be hard, and that the arts weren’t out of the realm of possibility for us.

A particularly transformative outing for us was when Art-Reach helped us attend the Pennsylvania Ballet’s sensory-friendly performance of Snow White this past spring. This had felt impossible, and my husband and I were prepared for an early exit, but everyone was loving and kind. When Logan took off running down the aisle, supportive staff helped comfort her and showed her around the theater. Our section offered us plenty of room, the lights were dim, the scenes were serene, and the setting was calm. It was a beautiful experience that had the biggest impact on our oldest daughter.

Madison is an aspiring dancer, and the ballet gave her the confidence to dream big. Dancers took the time to meet and interact with families afterward and helped all the children feel like they belonged in the arts. Madison still talks about this experience and dreams of dancing on stage as Snow White. She now sees this as a possibility for herself. I am so thankful for that.

The arts are instrumental in shaping individuals and how they interact within society. Families like mine need more organizations telling us, “Come on in. If you rock, make noise, have an outburst, it’s OK. You are welcome.”

Syrita Powers is a West Philadelphia native and a home health aide, nursing assistant, and therapeutic staff assistant before medical retirement. She also contributes to an online community that provide tips and resources for families facing challenges.