Creating ‘sensory experiences’

A professor works to create experiences that cater to children with social disorders.

When Roger Ideishi started college at the University of Washington, he wanted to enter two industries – architecture and service work. Through occupational therapy, he found a way to combine the two.

“I discovered that architects were sort of the founders of how occupational therapy builds their philosophy of practice,” said Ideishi, program director and associate professor in the department of rehabilitation sciences and occupational therapy.

Through occupational therapy, Ideishi began exploring the concept of creating pleasing “sensory experiences” for children with brain-based disorders, like autism, who often have sensory sensitivity and can become overwhelmed or anxious in busy social settings. Sensory experiences take the edge off of parents whose children have difficulties dealing with loud noises or bright lights in performances and public spaces.

 “They feel isolated – it’s just challenging to go out into the community and have their children experience all of the same child activities like going to the zoo, movies or the park,” Ideishi said.

Ideishi also said many families express concern with the way the public views their children in such settings.

 “It wasn’t that these kids were badly behaved – they are just responding to the environment around them, if it’s too noisy or too bright or [there are] too many people,” Ideishi said.

With a focus on art-based experiences, Ideishi and others delved into ways they could make shows and other public spaces more comfortable for children with disabilities. This includes environmental modifications like lights and sounds.

For performances, Ideishi suggests leaving theater lights on to give the children a sample of music so they can become acclimated. Sometimes Ideishi will propose a stage change that may be necessary for a comfortable environment, but does not take away from the performance.

During a performance of Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” at the Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Maryland, Ideishi and colleagues proposed moving a drummer’s place on stage because the percussionist was in the dark.

“We asked the director if that person could stand a little bit forward to be in the light, so visually people could see where that sound was coming from, and the director was perfectly fine with that,” Ideishi said.

Starting in 2002, Ideishi and other professors began exploring different opportunities to link therapy to the classroom, the home and the community. Ideishi began to notice what environments children with social disorders enjoyed most.

 “These kids seemed to be less threatened by art-based experiences, like dance and movement, art, drawing, music,” Ideishi said.

 Ideishi and his colleagues began partnering with organizations in Philadelphia and developing programs to foster sensitive environments in settings like museums and concerts. Some of their work involved dancers from the Pennsylvania Ballet.

He and his colleagues said they started to notice the children gaining a lot of movement and dance experience, which helped some children stray from repetitive or predictable behaviors.

“When you think about ballet, it is very routine, and you practice the same type of movement over music to get mastery over that,” Ideishi said. “The ballet dancer was more beneficial than to force these kids to do something at a table in the classroom.”

Alyssa Herzog is the former director of education and community engagement for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which Ideishi previously partnered with.

“We shaped the experience to be welcoming and inclusive through having relaxed house rules,” Herzog said.

Ideishi said he’s worked with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Last year, the Kennedy Center hosted an international conference on sensory experiences, and Ideishi helped organize and develop the agenda for the event.

“Everyone is concerned with, ‘How do we make the argument that this an effective type of programming for art organizations?’” Ideishi said. “Part of the objective was for all of us to come together and start identifying some evaluation methods and tools we can use to demonstrate that.”

In Philadelphia, there are only a few programs that incorporate the new idea of sensory experience, Ideishi said. Among them are the People’s Light and Theatre Company, located in Malvern. On Jan. 6, the theater held its first sensory-friendly performance of A”rthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon: A Musical Panto.”

On April 6, People’s Light and Theatre are hosting their second sensory-friendly performance, “Beautiful Boy.” The show is a narrative about the love and care of an autistic child.

Ideishi said Walnut Street Theatre is currently in the process of developing a sensory-based program.

“I can’t say enough how much of a powerhouse Roger is in the field right now,” Herzog said. “He helps to make arts organizations feel that this type of work is doable and can be accomplished successfully.”

Emily Scott can be reached at

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