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An Introduction to Neurodiversity for the Lighting Designer and Educator

Posted on: January 21, 2022

In this blog, Deanna Fitzgerald, author of The Heart of Light, asks: What is neurodiversity? How can lighting designers ensure neurodiversity is considered in their work, and how can educator's ensure that neurodiverse students can thrive in their studies?

What is Neurodiversity?

It depends on who you ask and what the context of the conversation is. Last year I engaged a trusted dramaturgy colleague to review my lighting design writing through an inclusivity lens. While language that was subtly unwelcoming in terms of race, gender, and physical ability were apparent when pointed out, my colleague also made notes about “the neurodiverse reader”. I realized that I wasn’t sure what “neurodiverse” really meant. My follow-up homework left me with more questions than answers, but I offer here some things I’ve learned that may be helpful for the lighting designer / educator to know.

silhouettes of four heads

Credit: Adobe Stock/MedRocky

In a dictionary sense, neurodiversity and neurodivergence refer to the atypical ways that a person’s brain may process information. To be any more specific than that requires context. The spirit of the word often signifies an effort to de-stigmatize labels that are sometimes thought of as a problem, like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other realities that can make living in a one-size-fits-all world challenging. None of these differences inherently prevent a person from being able to experience a performance, follow a story line, collaborate on a creative project, or learn to design lighting. Still, the uninformed assumptions that go along with these labels cause people to be left out. The term neurodiversity is a way to reimagine these differences in a positive context, embracing the variety of human experiences. A little understanding on our part can remove unintended and unnecessary barriers for our audiences and our students.

silhouettes of a person on bright colours

Credit: Adobe Stock/ Atomazul.

Where in our discipline do we commonly encounter Neurodiversity?

For a little over a decade, a movement has been evolving to create “Autism-friendly”, “Sensitivity-friendly” and “Relaxed” performances. These terms indicate different kinds of modifications and are usually defined on a production’s accessibility pages. Initially this was an effort to create a judgement-free experience for people who have difficulty sitting through or making sense of the performance environment. Since then it has grown into a broader nationwide effort related to making deliberate adjustments to specific performances in order to create access for the range of neurodiverse audiences. When particular adjustments are deemed impractical because they will alter the story or the overall objectives of a production, other tools can help. These tools focus on preparing the audience member for things that may be difficult for them in the moment (such as narrative guides, which might be about the story, characters, or confusing details, or jarring moments) and on providing them ways to cope (such as “fidget devices”, quiet spaces, or trained personnel to talk to). Allowing the brain to prepare can help a person manage a moment that might otherwise be difficult for them to sit through. Providing a place for them to retreat when they need a break can help make it possible for them to feel comfortable longer and come back when they are ready. These techniques are already used on Broadway (like upcoming autism-friendly performances of Come From Away, The Lion King, and Aladdin, for instance) and at prominent presenting organizations around the country (American Repertory Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre, to name a couple of the Theatre Development Fund’s national partners).

There are a number of artists and producing companies who specialize in creating performance for neurodiverse audiences and some have evolved into companies where neurodiverse people make performance. Spectrum Arts is a site with a collection of such organizations.

You may be surprised at the number of people you work with who identify as neurodiverse if you were to invite them to tell you. Many will not go out of their way to bring it up because of concern over the stigma, but don’t mind talking about it in a safe environment. For instance, one professional lighting designer I spoke with was diagnosed with PDD (a mild form of autism), ADHD and dyslexia as a child, but he has an MFA in lighting design, works full time for a prominent lighting firm in New England, and is an active leader in the industry. Still, he didn’t prefer for me to use his name because he knows there are assumptions made about what people can or cannot do when they hear those labels. He’s happy to talk to anyone who is interested in being informed and he gave me some fascinating insights. I’d be happy to connect you with him.

Where do I start and what can I do?

If I’ve convinced you to want to know more, here are some online quick reads I found educational: “TDF 2020 planning guide for theatres”; “Lisa Carling: Interview with TDF Director of Accessibility Programs” (November 7, 2020); “Tailoring a Play for the Acutely Attuned” (December 12, 2014); “Meet the Man Who Makes Broadway Autism-Friendly” (January 27, 2017). There is also an upcoming session at the USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology) 2022 National Conference entitled “Neurodivergent Projects for Design Students” which will tackle “…how to build lessons that enable all students to share their different life stories and approaches to their art, creating a more inclusive classroom.” (A special thanks to session chair Paige Wilson for educating me about these concepts and efforts.)

It might also be time to reflect on your own resistance to adapting things. If you were trained like I was, you work hard to make the best possible choices for the production at hand and you may see that process as precious. But consider this: we adapt our initial ideas all the time – there are never enough lights, circuits, room to hang things, nor are hanging positions always exactly where we want them, and there’s never enough time to tech, and there are always moments that can’t materialize the way we imagined them. So is every choice really that precious? Some of them are – no argument from me on that distinction. But what if more people could experience your work if thoughtful changes were made to a specific version of the performance? Some theatres are going to do it without you - I heard from some who said they design for theatres who do relaxed performances, but that the necessary adjustments are made by the venue staff after they leave. This is not unlike the common practice of adding a spotlight for a sign language interpreter, but the changes are much more significant. And now consider this: a 2017 study referenced by the CDC estimated that 2.21% of US adults 18 years old and up are on the autism spectrum. That’s almost 5 ½ million adults. If changing a strobe affect or an into-the-audience mover sweep, or even writing a paragraph about when to expect that effect and why you chose it, could make it possible for more of them to be included in your creation, would that be worth it?

What about our teaching? In some ways, the pandemic era is the worst time to ask teachers to re-evaluate because of adaptation fatigue, but on the other hand we know that higher education is experiencing some real sustainability threats (which are beyond the scope of this blog). If you could make small changes to be a better teacher to a broader population and subsequently be part of the solution, wouldn’t it be worth it?

The designer I didn’t name above said that he has trouble with non-verbal cues and representative language. So while in school, critique felt a greater challenge for him than his peers. He would often have trouble assessing the gravity of a comment and would misinterpret suggestions as confrontations. And because of his tendency to hyper-focus, and his non-linear way of composing things, interruptions to his workflow (particularly when cue setting) were disproportionately disruptive for him and probably often unnecessary. (He was going to get there, just not in the same order as his neurotypical peers.) He doesn’t blame anyone for this since he rarely shares his diagnoses, but I can’t help but wonder what we can accomplish if more of us were just a little more literate about all the different ways a brain may work and took the time to check in about it.

Here are some things you can do to create safer space for all of your students, but particularly those who are neurodiverse. First, be sure that your students know that this is something that you are learning about and that you open to adapting, when possible, to accommodate their learning styles and the way they can best receive critique. Next, vary your information delivery when possible - written, spoken, visual, aural, hands on, anything else creative you can think of. This will ensure that it reaches as many people with different processing varieties as possible. Also, say your student’s name before you speak to them and make sure they are focused on you before you say it. Lastly, say what you mean and mean what you say. Metaphors, expressions, and slang can be confusing particularly for people on the autism spectrum. If you (like me) like to make jokes and use expressions to keep things light, make sure that what you really mean also comes through.

a teenage boy is surrounded by people and paper

Credit: Photography by Tim Fuller. Courtesy of The Rogue Theatre. Pictured: Hunter Hnat and the cast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Thought Experiment: Sensitivity considerations to learn about our creative self

When I was in grad school, a final year seminar project we did was to re-work one of our previously-realized designs, but for different venues. This is a skill required of a professional lighting designer, but also a way to assess whether or not we could work our creations in a dynamic way. I continue to enjoy this exercise as a thought experiment, because it asks us to think of our design as a living thing – something that can survive and perhaps even get better through adaptation. To complete the task successfully, the designer has to do more than just cut things that don’t work in the new space, but must also look for opportunity. We have to figure out how to maintain the desired impacts in a different environment, with different hanging positions, and possibly different equipment and viewer perspectives. Even as a paper project, it provides an opportunity to get clear about what really matters in a design and all the different ways to get there.

What if we did a similar exercise for neurodiverse situations? In a design for a given show, what could be some effective alternatives to our bumps, sweeps, and jarring effects? What could we learn about our choices and the way we make our choices? I always encourage my students to consider if choices they’ve made are really the best choices for the moment or more about their taste preference. There’s nothing wrong with having taste preferences (we should, of course), but being clear about our motivations behind a choice allows us to better anticipate how effective they will be and make us better designers. I wonder if an exercise with sensitivity-friendly adaptation could facilitate similar growth and ready the designer for when this adaptation is requested.

Whatever you find relevant to your situations, I hope you will take the time to think about the value of the unique experiences of your neurodiverse students and audiences, and do what you can to encourage and include all of them in this wonderful creative work we do.