Just because a child has autism or has neuro-diverse needs, it doesn’t mean they can’t be encouraged to be artistic, as these experts show.
“UNTIL NOW PEOPLE have been expecting these kids to adapt – but why should they adapt?” Phillida Eves is passionate about children getting to be creative. But not just children who have certain abilities – with her work she aims to make sure all children have the opportunity to play and create.
Eves, who is based in Galway, works with children who have autism, and who frequently are non-verbal. As she prepares for an event at the Baboró children’s arts festival with the Barrowland Ballet, which is aimed at neuro-diverse children, she spoke to TheJournal.ie about how her work benefits young people and how labels need not determine what people get to do.
There are 14,000 students in Ireland with an autism diagnosis – that’s one in every 65. And so parts of Irish society have begun to cater for people with a diagnosis. We’ve heard about trolleys that can help shoppers with autism, as well as sensory pods, and a Santa grotto that’s an autism-friendly experience. The arts is also a space where change has begun.
“It’s just different needs for different people. And everyone has different needs and we need to recognise that and be far more flexible, and learn from these [young people],” Eves tells TheJournal.ie. “Why can’t we realise everyone has needs that are different?”
This Thursday, Eves will take part in an event with Barrowland Ballet at the Baboró International Arts Festival for Children in Galway. Barrowland is presenting its work Playful Tiger at the festival tonight and on Thursday too.
The performance is designed specifically for small groups of children and young people who are profoundly autistic and mostly non verbal, and it’s performed by dancers trained to work with children with these needs.
Playful Tiger tells the story through the eyes of the child in the family, with a focus on sensory engagement. There’s a playfulness within the piece which creates space for the audience and performers to interact, but always at the child’s discretion.
At the event on Thursday, Barrowland Ballet’s artistic director, Natasha Gilmore, along with the cast of ‘Playful Tiger’, will share insights into their work, joined by Eves.
At the cornerstone of Baboró’s foundation is the right of each child to enjoy arts and culture, as stated in the UN Convention on the rights of the Child: “The child has the right to rest and to engage in leisure, play and recreational activities and to participate in cultural and artistic activities.”
That means that key to Baboró’s values is access to the arts for all children. Because of this, it has an ACCESS programme to ensure that as many children as possible can experience the festival through free or subsidised events. It also has a collection of “relaxed” and “recommended” performances for children with who have particular needs when it comes to public spaces or special needs.
At the Scottish company Barrowland Ballet, they try to bring change to every venue they visit:
This project is supporting the venues to become more accessible. We have carried out “sensory audits” to help the venues and their staff in making practical adjustments to their buildings and procedures.
These adjustments include trained staff to help you find your way around the theatre, adjustments to sound levels and lighting, and additional time built in for arrival, settling in and finding your seats. There will also be no rush to leave once the show has finished.
The audience is not expected to sit still and/or be quiet, and there will just be six to eight young people accompanied by their adult guardian at each performance. If the child wants to wander around during the show, or stand in the corner, “that is fine”, says Barrowland – the child is even able to come in and out of the theatre. They’re able to make noise if they want: “The dancers are expecting this and do not mind.”
There’s even a private space for people to go to if the child needs to leave at any stage.
Source: Barrowland Ballet/Vimeo
“It’s very, very exciting to have a world class show like this coming to Baboró, to Galway and for people to see the wonderful work being done by Barrowland,” says Eves. “Barrowland are a very well-renowned dance company and it’s very interesting how they’ve adapted their show to be fantastic for children on the autistic spectrum.”
Eves is a teacher of children with special needs and also an artist. “I began to realise how important it is for children on the autistic spectrum to be part of creating work and give them a voice in creating their own shows as well,” she says of how her work has evolved. “I go into schools and the children are part of the collaborative process.”
Working alongside the musicians Michael Chang and Thomas Johnson, who Eves praised for their talent and work in this particular area, she and the children create shows together. This summer, they took part in a project at the Abbey Theatre.
“They were all on the autistic spectrum,” she says of the children who took part. “It was just wonderful because we went in there and made it open – we had no idea what to expect, we made it very clear it was about them, and we gave them loads of opportunities. It just started to happen in a very spontaneous way.”
‘I’d never seen that before’
Eves notes that there is often “very little opportunity” for children on the autistic spectrum to create their own creative work.
“You never know what to expect – it’s very exciting,” she says of the benefits of such work. “I think it’s important to give these children a voice and agency in creating work themselves, completely on their own terms, and giving them the opportunity to develop.”
During their workshops, the creative process revolves around a story where the children go on a camping adventure, explains Eves. “We meet a woodland creature who’s cold and hungry and the children start to find ways of solving these problems, like finding clothes or starting a campfire. They come up with the solution and it’s very, very rewarding. The teachers every single time we go say ‘I never would have believed [this child]would do that, I’ve ever seen that before.”
Getting to be creative seems to open the children up to new spaces within themselves. “We create a safe environment so that they have a safe place they can be themselves and follow their own ideas,” is how Eves puts it.
Eves is not the only person doing work like this in Ireland, but she is one of just a small number of such facilitators and trained teachers. “More and more people are starting to do it,” she says, but adds that there is a need for more teachers.
“We create a safe space with no expectation and people are welcomed and celebrated for being who they are,” says Eves. She visits schools to ensure that the children aren’t taken out of familiar environments. “We try to keep it calm. We like to be very conscious of sensory input and we also bring a lot of our shows to schools. We don’t expect them to come out, to go to a place. Their creativity is phenomenal.”
Playful Tiger takes place today and on Thursday 17 October at the Black Box Theatre in Galway. On Thursday 17 October, Natasha Gilmore of Barrowland Ballet and the cast of Playful Tiger will share insights into their work for neuro-diverse young audiences. They will be joined by Phillida Eves for this event. Tiger Tale by Barrowland will also run as part of the festival until this Saturday. It is also suitable for groups with additional needs.