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How the Pa. Ballet's sensory-friendly 'Nutcracker' saved one Philly family's Christmas tradition

The Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker" was a beloved family tradition for Tamia Pettus, and now it's a tradition for her autistic son Tamar, too, thanks to the company's sensory-friendly production. They attended last year and plan to go again this year.

Tamia Pettus and her son Tamar, who has high-functioning autism, attended the Pennsylvania Ballet’s first sensory-friendly “Nutcracker” last year and plan to attend again this year.
Tamia Pettus and her son Tamar, who has high-functioning autism, attended the Pennsylvania Ballet’s first sensory-friendly “Nutcracker” last year and plan to attend again this year.Read moreGENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer

When Tamia Pettus was a girl, she looked forward to visiting the Academy of Music every year for a beloved family tradition — the Pennsylvania Ballet production of The Nutcracker. She loved the sparkly tutus, the exciting music, and the Christmas-themed story.

But when her son, Tamar, now 10, was diagnosed at age 2 with high-functioning autism, Pettus, of Olney, thought she would probably have to give up the annual trips to the ballet. She didn't feel comfortable even taking her son to the grocery store with her until he was 5. Instead, she introduced Tamar to The Nutcracker through storybooks and TV specials.

So when Pettus found out last December that the Pennsylvania Ballet was giving its first sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker, she was thrilled. She bought tickets and took Tamar to the ballet for the first time.

"Tamar was so excited to be there," Pettus said. "He loved all of it, especially the music. Because he was familiar with it already, he was telling me the story during the ballet."

Families will again have the opportunity to attend a sensory-friendly Nutcracker this year, at noon Dec. 27, again developed with the nonprofit organization Art-Reach, which works to bring underserved audiences to local performances.

For this Nutcracker, the Academy of Music is a "shush-free zone," which means parents of children with special needs don't have to worry about disturbing other audience members. "All behavior is allowed," said Charlie Miller, deputy director at Art-Reach. "That means attendees can do whatever they need to do to process the information, like pace up and down the aisles, play with a fidget spinner, or vocalize."

The performance will also feature adjusted lighting, lower sound levels, gluten-free concessions, and a "cool-down tent" in the lobby with blankets and pillows where attendees can continue watching the ballet on a projection screen.

It's not unusual for parents like Pettus to feel left out of holiday traditions that other families take for granted. "If you have a child on the autism spectrum, you kind of become a bit of a divided family," Miller said. "One parent takes care of the kid with special needs while other parent takes care of the other kids. If we don't have someone with special needs in our family, we often take for granted the ability to experience a cultural event together."

Sarah Cooper, director of community engagement at the Pennsylvania Ballet, said it's been a longstanding goal for the company to provide more access for people with special needs. "We wanted to reach as many people as possible in the Philadelphia area," she said. "This was a natural extension of that."

At last year's performance, Pettus said, she was surprised by how quiet the kids in the audience were. During intermission, she took Tamar to the cool-down tent and offered him a snack. When another kid took his snack, Pettus expected her son to become upset. Instead, he told her he didn't mind sharing.

Pettus also takes Tamar to libraries and has taken him to the Please Touch Museum for events that aren't specifically sensory friendly. When people have problems with him, she just tells them he is a little bit different and still learning.

She encouraged other parents of children with special needs to expose them to as many new experiences as possible. "No one should be embarrassed, but a lot of families are," she said. "But how are they supposed to learn how to act in public if they don't go out? It can be a little nerve-racking, but you don't know until you try."