Sensory- and memory-friendly events give opportunities for expression in the Denver area


The Barros family has difficulty finding programs they all can attend.

“We try to take them to events as much as I can, but the kids at this age don't pay attention for an hour,” Fernando Barros said.

Following a Jan. 12 sensory-friendly program at the Lone Tree Arts Center, Barros said he was lucky to be close to the arts center for its regularly scheduled programming of shows open to kids who may need to blurt or move around during a theater show or who have sensitivities to light or sound.

The strict etiquette of theater performances or art galleries can be difficult to follow for people with disabilities or those suffering from memory loss. Throughout Denver, arts and culture venues are offering specialized programs for those who need special attention. “Arts for all” programs give families a place to enjoy the arts without worrying about being a disturbance to others.

“We want families to feel like they have a place to come and feel welcome at the theater,” said Robin Scurto, annual giving director at the Lone Tree Arts Center who oversees the arts-for-all programs. “However they enjoy they arts, they're allowed to do that.”

A sensory safe place

Sensory-friendly programming is the heart of the Lone Tree Arts Center's “arts for all” initiative. Arts for all programs are becoming more common staples to local arts centers.

Facilities including the Butterfly Pavilion, Denver Aquarium, Denver Museum of Nature & Science and Denver Botanic Gardens offer sensory friendly hours as well.

Low-sensory programming can look different based on the facility. Lone Tree Arts Center hands out fidget objects and a quiet room for kids to cool off if needed. Arts centers in Arvada, Littleton and Parker all have some sensory friendly programming. Many partner with Phamaly Theatre Company, a Denver-based theater group made up of people with disabilities.

Darion Ramos, company production manager at Phamaly, said most low-sensory programs aims to limit surprises, flashing lights and loud noises, for the most part.

“We want to make sure everyone is welcome and everyone is comfortable,” Ramos said. “It feels less intruding if parents take their kids to the sensory-friendly performance.”

Different shows are modified in different ways to accommodate sensitive kids. The house lights are dimmed to half, microphones and sound effects are tempered and families are allowed more space between themselves and others. No clapping is allowed. Instead, the audience is asked to applaud in American Sign Language, which looks similar to jazz hands.

Before the show, actors and any scary characters are introduced. A sensory-friendly guide will assist families in the lobby.

“Bottom line, it's important to have that space for people so everyone can come out and enjoy theater and be comfortable,” Ramos said. “No matter what's going on the world, theater is one of those releases … Just because you can't sit still in your seat or have to make noises and be yourself doesn't mean you can' t come to the theater because other people are going to care.”

Tapping into memories

Once a week the Colorado Alzheimer's Association visits with one of 90 arts centers in the state to lead a group of Alzheimer's patients in watercolor classes. The Memories in the Making program gives patients the opportunity to express themselves through painting.

“It's amazing how you see different people's personal styles come out and the way they move the brush and the color choices they make, how far they go to the edges of the paper,” said Lisa Steffan, Memories in the Making art program coordinator. “There's a lot of personal expression in the style in the way they work.”

The Memories in the Making program has been offered by the Colorado chapter since 1994. Each week, a group paints in watercolors based on either an image or an object. Painting helps the artists express their emotions or feelings that lead to deep memories. The most important part of the process is the interaction the artist has with one of the group facilitators. Through casual conversation, the artists tap into memories the facilitator will write on the back of each painting.

Artists can take several weeks to finish a single piece, but the end goal is not necessarily the painting. The effects of expressing oneself through painting can last for days at a time, Steffan said.

“We often talk about how it depends on using what they have. Not focusing on what they've lost but focusing on what they can still do in the present moment,” Steffan said. “Painting has a soothing quality to it that, once they get started on something and get into a groove, they're not focused on somebody telling them what to do.”

At a Lone Tree Arts Center Jan. 30 SPARK! event, a partnership program between the Alzheimer's Association and local art centers, patrons were asked to interpret what they saw in a collection of abstract-realist paintings from the late Joellyn Duesberry, a Denver painter. Some saw a horse's face in the rocks of a cascading waterfall or dirt mounds from fox holes in a painting of piles of chili peppers in a Peruvian desert. What they saw helped unlock memories from their past.

“You don't need to remember what you ate for breakfast to be able to look at a painting and have an opinion,” Scurto said.


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