April 2 marked the 9th annual World Autism Awareness Day, and it's a wonderful time to reflect on the massive cultural shift beyond inclusion toward celebrating neurodiversity. Just half a century ago, the measures for diagnosing autism were often shifting and unknown to most pediatricians. Access to public education was up to local school systems, but was not mandated by law, and it was more likely that parents would be encouraged to institutionalize their children with autism than integrate their families into their community.

Since then, legislation like Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), advocacy groups like Autism Speaks, and cultural awareness through plays like Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and television shows like "Parenthood," "The Big Bang Theory," and "Bones" have drastically changed how autism is integrated into the community and into public awareness. Employers like IBM, Google and Ford Motor Company are investing in recruiting and retaining employees with autism, recognizing that the unique perspectives of individuals with autism are great assets to the workforce.

Cultural organizations, particularly in New York City, have drastically shifted their outreach efforts and accessibility goals to meet the growing number of people with autism. Since TDF launched the Autism Theatre Initiative in 2011, thousands of people with autism have experienced autism-friendly Broadway performances, and the volunteers, staff, casts, and crew at these productions have been trained on autism awareness. The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum offers free Early Morning Openings that allow individuals with autism and their families to attend activities in the museum before it is open to the public. These are just two examples of the many programs offered in theaters and museums throughout the city to meet the needs of this audience.

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts offers a range of accommodations, programs, and events to ensure that people with autism can fully participate in the arts, and that our audiences reflect the diversity of our city. This month, Lincoln Center Education opened its second production designed for young people with autism, Campfire. This highly intimate, interactive performance is designed to highlight the strengths of young people with autism through immersing the audience in multisensory production elements. For the first time, Lincoln Center Kids and Jazz at Lincoln Center have offered Relaxed Performances this season. The Passport to the Arts Program offers inclusive performances and adapted workshops at venues across campus, all free for people with disabilities and their families. This spring, Passport families can select from performances at the New York Philharmonic, backstage tours of the Metropolitan Opera, drama workshops at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, adapted dance classes with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater, and WeBop music classes with Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Looking beyond audience, Lincoln Center recognizes the need for including perspectives of people with disabilities—including autism—on our staff and on our stages. In March, as part of the ReelAbilities Film Festival, we presented “Time to Love, A Backstage Tale,” a documentary about the first inclusive performance featuring young people with Down Syndrome in Panama, followed by a discussion on inclusive theater and performances by Actionplay and CO/LAB Theater Group, both comprised of performers with autism and other developmental disabilities.

When audiences attend performances in the Clark Studio, Atrium, or Damrosch Park, they may be greeted by Access Ambassadors, high school students with developmental disabilities participating in a job training program. Organized through partnerships with several public and private schools serving students with disabilities, Access Ambassadors learn professionalism, teamwork, and social skills, and are exposed to arts careers through weekly sessions in schools and volunteer shifts in front-of-house roles at performances on campus.

As we approach the close of Autism Awareness Month this year, it is wonderful to reflect on the drastic improvements in inclusion and quality of life for people with autism, and to celebrate the successes of pioneering advocacy and service providers, cultural organizations, and businesses. It is also an opportunity to continue to push forward in advocating for equity for all people with disabilities.


Miranda Appelbaum is Assistant Director of Accessibility & Guest Services at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.