Ryan Kearney’s mom was thrilled when she snagged tickets to see “The Lion King” at the Boston Opera House last Saturday, and not just because it’s the most successful box office hit in history.
Ryan, 15, is autistic, nonverbal, and lives at a school in Andover. It can be a challenge just to get him into the car. Outings are rare. So the thought of taking him to a live performance — without worry — left his mother in tears. And it left Ryan smiling and swaying, uncharacteristically, during the crowd-pleasing “Hakuna Matata” and other numbers.
In fact, hakuna matata — “no worries” in Swahili — could have been the show’s theme song.
The “autism-friendly” performance of “The Lion King” is among a growing number of theater productions in Boston and around the country intended for families with children on the autism spectrum, with quieter music and less intense lighting, plus calming areas and relaxed rules about theater etiquette.
This was Broadway in Boston’s first effort, and with 2,600 people at the sold-out show, it played to the biggest audience of autistic children and their families the city has seen. Modeled after similar Broadway stagings, the matinee was designed to create “a sensory-friendly and judgment-free environment,” said Rich Jaffe, president of Broadway in Boston.
There were kids who wore sound-reducing headphones. Several stuck their fingers in their ears. Two assistance dogs accompanied their families. There was a constant crinkling of candy and pretzel bags.
“Were we distracted? Not at all,” said Lisa Marie Noke-Kearney, Ryan’s mom. “This is our world.”
Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects 1 in 68 people — a 30 percent increase from two years ago. Autism is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behavior. Some on the spectrum have intellectual challenges, attention and motor coordination problems, as well as physical health issues.
Autism-friendly performances have been staged at smaller Boston venues. The Boston Conservatory Theater did a matinee of “Oklahoma” last October with extra ushers and greeters who offered fidget toys and earplugs. The house lights were dim, not dark. Children were free to leave their seats.
The conservatory is now committed to doing two such shows a year. “It’s an enormous need, and it’s getting bigger and bigger,” said Rhoda Bernard, director of the conservatory’s program for students with autism.
In spring 2013, Boston’s Wheelock Family Theatre staged an autism-friendly performance of “Pippi Longstocking” and is considering more such shows. And Trinity Repertory Company in Providence has decided to make a sensory-friendly performance of “A Christmas Carol” an annual event, after its initial success last year.
As performances go, “The Lion King” is at the top of the food chain. The idea for the Boston performance was hatched when Broadway in Boston learned that the Tony Award-winning musical had been performed for autistic children in New York, Pittsburgh, and Houston, to sold-out crowds.
“It just felt like the right thing to do,” Jaffe said.
He connected with the New England chapter of Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization. With help from sponsors, Autism Speaks bought out the house, offering tickets for free or at reduced cost.
“We want our families to have the same opportunity to go to the theater as every other family,” said Russ Kenn, executive director of Autism Speaks. “But what we kept hearing from parents is that their kids were bothering other people who had paid a hundred bucks to see ‘The Lion King.’ ”
Autism Speaks staffed two “calming areas” with beanbag chairs, coloring books, and squishy toys. The house lights remained half lit, strobe lights were eliminated, percussion and roars tamped down.
Liz Feld, the group’s national president, took the stage to encourage the audience “to sing and dance and clap and do whatever you want to do!”
They did. There were cheers for the heroes and jeers for the villains. Children bounced in their seats, rocked back and forth, or stood up. A few of the smaller ones ran up and down the aisles, under the eye of a parent. Some left but came back. Some simply left.
Susan Linehan and her son, Patrick, 20, sat in the second row, where he was glued to the action. “It was like two Thanksgivings and two Christmases combined,” said Linehan, who lives in Sharon. “If a kid was crying or screaming, no one cared because that could have been each and every one of our kids. It was like one big family.”
The Boston autism community is still abuzz about the show, she said, with parents sharing posts on social media and hoping for more such performances. “The Lion King” closed Sunday, but Jaffe said future Broadway in Boston shows may have similar potential.
Tshidi Manye, who played the baboon Rafiki, had performed in other autistic-sensitive performances before Boston. “The first time we did it, I wept like a baby, seeing the kids able to laugh and do what they want,” she said. “At one point, Scar says, ‘Tell them, Simba, tell them who killed your dad!’ And one of the kids shouted, ‘You did!’ ”
Until Saturday, Warren and Julie Grasso of Marlborough had never been to the theater with their children, Elizabeth, 11, and Thomas, 14. Their son, who is on the spectrum, wore his “Hakuna Matata” T-shirt and headphones.
Thomas was afraid at first and wanted to go home, but instead went to a calming area. He returned for the second act.
When the show ended, there were tears and hugs in the crowd, and a standing ovation for the cast. But the audience might also have been applauding itself.
Kathy Mulkerrins of Milton was in the front row with her autistic 20-year-old son, Joseph, her daughter, and niece. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure he would enjoy the musical versus the TV screen,” she said, “but boy oh boy, from the minute it started, it was unbelievable.”
Mulkerrins is eager for another show. “Now that the door’s been open, I think we’ll be doing it again.”