Hakuna Matata On A Sunday Afternoon

From the moment I heard there was to be a one-off autism-friendly performance of The Lion King, I knew we had to go. Musicals have been my greatest passion ever since I was a teenager, and even when I was pregnant with my twins I’d dream of sharing this joyous experience with my children. I would lay in the bath singing show tunes to my bump. In fact I went to see Wicked when I was about three weeks pregnant – before I was even aware that my little ones had been created.

Once J’s autism came to light, however, it seemed less likely that he would enjoy a West End show with me. J has hyper-sensitive hearing, can be overwhelmed by large crowds, and does not seem to grasp the need to be quiet in certain situations. So when I heard there was going to be a performance of Lion King aimed specifically at an autistic audience, it seemed too good to be true.

I asked my parents how they would feel about buying the tickets as the children’s birthday present, as the performance fell two weeks after their fourth birthday. Of course they said yes, so having bought our tickets for Row H of the stalls, I waited patiently.

When the tickets arrived, there was an accompanying letter inviting me to use the resources on the website prior to the performance. Clearly considerable time and effort had gone into producing the visual story which enabled me to prepare J for our visit. It meant he knew what he would see when he arrived, and how the show would start. And indeed, when the big day arrived and we had experienced the excitement of a Tube journey and a taxi ride, J was very excited to see the theatre, exactly as he had seen it on the laptop screen the day before.

But it wasn’t until we took our seats in the Lyceum Theatre that I started to realise quite how special an experience this was to be. I looked around as the 2000-seat auditorium began filling with a truly unique audience. All around me were children, teenagers and adults with varying degrees of autism. Many were flapping their hands and jumping up and down. Some were rocking back and forth ferociously in their chairs. Others were making unusual hand gestures, or clapping their hands over their ears. Many were wearing ear-defenders to block out the sounds around them. Some were spinning around in the aisles, others sat on the floor and refused to stand. And the noise level grew and grew, with the sound of people groaning, screeching, hooting and laughing. To the uninitiated this might have looked daunting, even frightening. But to us, the parents and families of people with autism, this was pure happiness. Unlike J, many people with autism are non-verbal. The best way they had to express their growing excitement was to make these strange-sounding noises. And for some, like J, the noise and the crowds were overwhelming. Some made their own noises to block out the sounds around them. But this was fine too. This was part of giving our children an experience many of them would never have otherwise been able to have. And then I realised – a large part of the increased noise level was due to the parents who had excitedly brought their children to this special event. A theatre visit usually involves the audience taking their seats quietly, rustling through their programmes as they wait patiently for the curtain to go up. Not so here. All around me I could hear people introducing themselves and their children, comparing experiences, empathising. We were amongst friends.

The show started 15 minutes late. The organisers probably underestimated how long it would take to seat a special-needs audience. In that time, J had insisted on sitting on my lap and fallen asleep. Like many, many children with autism, J is a very poor sleeper. He had been up since 2am. (Incidentally, like many, many autism parents, I am permanently exhausted. I had also been up since 2am!) But at last, two cast members in full costume took to the stage. The audience grew quieter: something was about to happen. And then the man in the lion costume spoke.

“My name is George” he said “and I play the part of Scar”. This was clever. This helped the audience differentiate between the actors and the characters. Good start. George went on to speak briefly about what an honour it was to be able to present this unique performance to us. And he meant it. The emotion in his voice was clear. The audience applauded loudly. This made those with hyper-sensitive hearing groan louder. He introduced the woman standing beside him, who plays Rafiki, and explained that she would be singing the first song in the show. Again, a thoughtful measure to help prepare the audience for what would come. “Much too often” said George meaningfully “autism has to adapt to society. It’s about time a little bit of society adapted to autism!” The audience erupted. I burst into tears. The woman next to me handed me a tissue, as she also stifled a sob. They understood. All these people around me – the families, the cast and crew, the staff of the theatre and the National Autistic Society and Disney who were lining the auditorium ready to help: all of them understood.

And then the show began. I didn’t want J to miss the exciting start, as the huge jungle animals walked right past us. “Wake up J!” I said. “Look darling! Look at the elephant!” He opened his eyes blearily, and then rubbed them. He stared in open-mouthed wonderment at what he was seeing and whispered to me: “Mum! I see a giraffe!”

I cannot imagine the cast have ever performed to an audience like it. At times the noise in the auditorium made it difficult to hear what was happening on stage. But at no point was anyone shushed. No-one was on the receiving end of dirty looks, whispered comments about controlling our children, tutting and head-shaking. It was all OK. In front of me a teenage boy was rocking so hard in his chair that his mother tried to stop him and turned to apologise to the woman behind her. “Please don’t” said the woman. “He’s absolutely fine”. Each time Scar, the baddie, appeared on stage, a young man wearing ear defenders leapt into his father’s lap and buried his face in his neck. Behind me another teenage boy was completely overwhelmed. He stood up waving and flapping his arms violently. “Please sit Paul!” his mother pleaded. “Please just try!” In the end his father took him out of the auditorium, where they went instead to the thoughtfully planned relaxation area, full of large bean bags and tactile, sensory toys. Next to Paul’s mother, another boy was so lost in the wonder of the African drumming that he sat with his eyes closed, drumming his own beat loudly and enthusiastically on his thighs. Two rows in front of me a girl put her coat over her head as the show started. She left it there for the entire performance and no-one from her family asked her to remove it. Every time the audience applauded at the end of a song or scene, J clapped his hands over his ears and shouted until the applause subsided. He then thought of something funny his cousin had done last month and repeated what she had said again and again, very loudly, for about 20 minutes.

When the song Hakuna Matata started J recognised it and tried to sing along. The words of the song seemed so poignant at that moment. “It means no worries for the rest of your days.” Sadly I realised, the opposite would be true for so many of the young people sitting around me. The challenges caused by their autism will likely mean the rest of their days will be fraught with worries. But, for that moment at least, their worries were suspended. Hakuna Matata for a few hours.

When the curtain fell for the interval I needed to change J’s nappy. We went to the relaxation area where I sat on a bean bag to do it. No-one batted an eyelid. Every parent I passed wanted to engage me in conversation – about the show, about our children, about autism. I remarked how wonderful it was to allow J to behave exactly as he needed to, without fear of being judged as a bad parent. Everyone I spoke to felt the same.

The second half passed with as much noise and excitement as the first. Paul finally returned to his seat behind me, where his mother kissed him exhuberantly saying “Thank you Paul! Thank you for coming back! See how beautiful it is!” The drumming boy laughed loudly and hysterically at Timon and Pumbaa. J screeched with laughter when, on the stage, Zazu walked into the wall. “Zazu went crash!” he shouted joyfully. I wondered at times whether the cast had fully realised what they were letting themselves in for. It must have been the first time in their acting careers that they had to fight to make themselves heard. I hoped they could feel how enraptured we were by the beauty of their singing and the breathtaking staging.

When the final curtain call came, I leapt to my feet with J in my arms. I whooped and cheered for all I was worth. J hated this and screamed at me to be quiet, but I couldn’t. I had to let all those responsible for this incredible production know just how grateful I was and how much it had meant to me. As the house lights went up and we put our coats on, J started sobbing. “I don’t want to leave Lion King!” he pleaded. “I want to stay at Lion King!” He was placated by the Lion King flag handed to him by a smiling staff member on the way out, which is now taped proudly to his bedroom wall.

I don’t know whether the cast and crew of Sunday’s performance realise quite what an important thing they did. This went way beyond allowing people with autism to experience a trip to the theatre. What this performance did was to make us normal. For a few hours, our children and family members were free to be themselves and to behave however they needed to, without fear of judgement or retribution. For a few hours, we did not feel the need to apologise for our own children. For a few hours, no-one felt they had to explain anything. For a few hours we had no worries. Hakuna Matata.



121 thoughts on “Hakuna Matata On A Sunday Afternoon

  1. wow this sounds like such an amazing performance, i wish I could have experienced it with my 3. The theatre company seem to have put so much thought into this, they should be very proud. I’m so glad you got to enjoy such a wonderful afternoon x

    1. Thanks Kathryn! I can only hope those involved will realise it’s an experience worth repeating … and that some of the other big shows will follow suit. It was a very emotional experience! x

  2. I actually welled up completely at my desk reading this. I am so glad the people involved were thoughtful enough to organise something like this and I am so glad you were able to go. xxx

  3. How wonderful. I am so sorry that I was ill and missed this – it sounds so empowering and emotional and affirming. You should send this blog to the cast: I am sure it will mean a lot to them, and what a fantastic job they did pre-production as well as during the production itself xxx

    1. We’re also really really sorry you missed it. But hopefully other shows will follow suit and you’ll come to the next one! A friend of mine is friends with a cast member so I’ve asked her to find out the best way for me to get in touch to thank them and send a copy of this post xx

  4. I work for the National Autistic Society and I just wanted to say thank you for writing such a lovely blog. It’s so encouraging to hear you and your family enjoyed the show so much – it puts everything into perspective. I’d really like to have a chat with you if possible; please drop me a line at andrew.willard@nas.org.uk

  5. Well put, It truly was an amazing day! We took an adult with autism and she loved it. Hoping others follow suit!

  6. Brilliant, just brilliant! I’m crying as I read this, me, a grumpy old git who forgets sometimes just how lucky he is. Thank you for sharing this, so glad you had a good time. From a fellow Ozian. x

    1. What a lovely comment Steve, thank you. I’m sure we all forget how lucky we are – despite the challenges I deal with in life I still consider myself to be deeply blessed. We just sometimes need to contrast our good fortune with the trials of others!

  7. Hi. This is an amazing story. I run a national radio programme. Would you be interested in telling it on air?

  8. I am so glad that you and your family had the opportunity to enjoy the theatre, something I take for granted. Your story touched me deeply.

  9. Your account brought tears to my eyes. Congratulations to all those who enabled this truely memorable day. Let’s hope it’s not the last.

  10. I cried reading this! i really did! theatre was my love before my kids came along…i was an actress and wanted to share this experience with my future family. once we recieved a diagnosis for both my children, both severe i felt this was one dream that i had to let go. but i dont! i really dont!! please tell whoever you are talking to a nas how important this is to kids and parents alike xxx

  11. I work at the New School at West Heath, an independent specialist secondary school in Sevenoaks, Kent leading the Arts Faculty. We put on various productions throughout the year with students showing off their many talents to friends, family and the public. I feel slight shame to having never heard of autism-friendly Musical Performances but also proud that the second profession I am part of has moved on in society and provides such wonderful opportunities.

    I shall now look out for other companies/shows providing this kind of opportunity and spread the word!

    Thank you for this blog and for promoting such goodness so well. It is truly a well needed positive in a developing but difficult, somewhat narrow-minded society we live in. Long may it continue and develop.

    1. I don’t think you need to feel any shame Steve, since to my knowledge this performance was the first of its kind. Hopefully one day they’ll be so commonplace that everyone will know about them!!

  12. My mum went to this also with her boyfriend and his severely autistic son who is 19. He has non verbal autism and is in a home for children with autism. My mum said that whilst it was an amazing experience for Sean it was an even better experience for her. It made her see autism in a different light and that it is not the be all and end all. She loved how the kids all reacted differently and who they all showed appreciation in different ways. Pleased your son had a great time.

  13. Hi.. I have followed a link to this page so am new to it. I am the stage manger of The Lion King and was very much part of Sundays show. But more importantly, my cousins son is a teenager with autism. I, via the autism society, have been educated and learnt so much about this condition. I really had no idea. I saw so many faces on Sunday.. Beautiful children.. That with their families came and saw a show.. It’s as simply as that or should be.. but now appreciate a bit more how things really are. so seeing the smiles, hearing the laughing.. even seeing a few tears of happiness was fantastic. But please don’t think that the level of enjoyment stopped at the show cloth. The company and cast felt privileged to be performing for you all because in my mind the families, mums,dads, grandparents and all the volunteers were the stars of Sunday.. I have already said to anyone who will listen this should be at least an annual event.. This may have been the first. But I very much hope not the last performance for you very special people.

    1. Thank you so very much for taking the time to comment Sarah. What you have said made me get all emotional again! I would be hugely grateful if you would circulate my blog post around the cast and crew so that they can all know the full impact of their hard work on Sunday.

  14. Hello everyone, glad to hear everyone had a great time on Sunday and brilliant to hear such wonderful feedback. I just wanted to let you know that we are running a national programme of ‘Relaxed Performances’ across the UK. They are the same as Autism-Friendly but we find that people with other learning disabilities attend to which is why we call them Relaxed. If you would like more information and to see when a performance will be on near you please look at our website http://www.facebook.com/relaxedperformanceproject for further details. Thanks, Kirsty Hoyle (Project Manager, Relaxed Performance Project)

  15. What a wonderful story. If this powerful and eloquent post could reach the right people I’m sure events like this would become so commonplace that no family event could manage without them. I really hope it gets the exposure it deserves.

    1. I wouldn’t ever want to presume to speak for all autism parents Suzette as J is at the high-functioning end of the spectrum, and so I know parents of children at the other end face far greater challenges than I do. But I think we still all share many of the same experiences. I’m so glad you feel my words are representative of the way you feel too.

  16. Dear all – this story will appear on BBC Radio 5 live Breakfast tomorrow morning (Friday) at just after 0815. Scott Solder (programme editor).

  17. This was just wonderful to read, thank you for sharing, and thanks to to the Lion King people for making this happen. I’m part of a local drama group, and would love to make something like this happen in our community. I’d love to get in contact to discuss some ideas of how we could make this happen.

  18. I couldn’t be prouder of my dear friend for writing such an incredible post and for subsequently making it her mission to make this type of performance a rule rather than an exception.
    Given the success of this performance and the feedback here I see no reason why every theatre and even cinema can’t offer showings for people with special needs. There is clearly a huge demand.
    I have no doubt that you’re going to make a change to the lives of thousands.
    Much love

  19. Hi, We were there with our 16 very nearly 17 year old non verbal son with autism. It felt really good and oh my god how relaxing it ended up being. Its never relaxing when we go out normally . It was like being in a roomful of friends ! Its given my husband and I more confidence to try other things that involve sitting for a period of time. Great blog.

    1. Yes isn’t it funny – who would have ever thought being in a room full of hundreds of autistic kids would be the most relaxing experience we’ve had in a long time?!! So glad you enjoyed it as much as we did.

  20. What a truly moving story, it’s taken a while for me to compose myself before replying. I only recently heard about ‘relaxed performances’ through the recent announcement of one for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (details here: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/your-visit/access/relaxed-performances), but after reading your account I think it’s wonderful that children and parents can experience something so liberating and exciting. I hope you and J get to enjoy more experiences like this in the future.

    1. Thanks for your lovely comments. I went to see Curious a few months ago and found it a deeply emotional experience. I wish everyone would go and see it – I think it gives an amazing insight on what it’s like to have autism and to be an autism parent. I loved reading the book, but it didn’t put the experience across in the same way the play did.

  21. Wow, reading your blog has brought back so many emotional memories of my childhood with my brother Steven. I remember people staring and juding my mum when Steven had a tantrum as a child, when we were asked to leave the cinema because Steven made “too much noise”, the years I spent defending and protecting him from other children at the adventure playground we attended. Steven is now a 27 year old man and I worry what the future holds for him.

    I had never heard about relaxed performances before, but I know my brother will love it!

    Thank you!

    1. Sounds like Steven was (and still is) very very lucky to have you. I’m really thankful that J has got L by his side who even at the age of 4 understands about J’s autism and defends him ferociously (even when he doesn’t really need it!)

      I hope you manage to get Steven to a relaxed performance and that he enjoys it as much as we did!

  22. This was so heartwarming.. It made me cry. What a beautiful piece of writing that gives a unique insight to a moment in your life. Looking forward to reading more!

  23. Thank you so much for writing this. I had heard about this special show and so delighted – as I enjoy theatre as much as you – that one show had decided to take this amazing step.

    I read parts of this out to my wife and had to keep stopping to hold back tears of joy and happiness at the sheer brilliance of your experience.

    Thanks again,


  24. Brilliant post truly inspirational. The RSC did a relaxed performance of their Christmas show last year I hope they will be doing it again worth keeping an eye out for. I will be posting your blog where I can

    Thank you

  25. I have been to see The Lion King five times now and have loved it every time. I have never seen them offer something like this before to audiences and I cannot imagine the thrill it must’ve been for you and your children. As a theatre lover and practitioner, I hope more theatres can offer this opportunity

  26. What you have so beautifully described is everything I, as the daughter of an actor and 1 myself, was brought up to believe that theatre is all about! To move human beings for the good of mankind.

  27. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story. It makes me so humble to realise how much I take going to the theatre for granted.
    I hope there is another such performance for your twins’ fifth birthday!

  28. This blog is fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing this.
    I was wondering if I could have your permission to use this blog as a basis for an essay I’m writing? Also would it be possible to send you a questionnaire in the next few weeks asking a bit more detail?
    Thank you

    1. Hi Emily. Of course I’d be delighted to help with your essay and flattered for you to base it on my blog. I’ll send you an email now so you’ve got my address and you can give me some more info! πŸ™‚

  29. Shame we missed it as we knew nothing about it. My Autistic son who is almost 23 would have loved to have seen it. I have wanted to see it for a long time but having an Autistic son means it would not have been a family day, we would have had to leave him at home on a normal show – this would have been perfect!
    The Odeon group also do special screening for children with the likes of Autism, but they are always aimed at the younger audiance rather than teenagers or adults with Autism, who often want to see more adult films rather than say Disney type ones. When we go to the cinema we wait a week or so after the film has come out and then go to the Gallery – far more expensive, but also only around 50 or so seats which are 2 seater leather sofas where he feels more relaxed as usually ends up with a sofa on his own. Far less stressful no crowds etc. More expensive but worth so he can come with us and enjoy a film

  30. I just stumbled upon your blog. It has made my day! Thankyou for sharing such a brilliant experience with us. It gives a vision of a better more inclusive world and gives me incentive to keep working hard for it.

  31. Hi,

    I had emailed you previously about sending you a questionnaire for my essay?
    I unfortunately lost your email, but is this still okay?

    Thank you
    Emily Barraball

  32. What a fantastic opportunity. Found out about this after the event. I truly hope its not a one off. Seems it was as therapeutic for the parent’s as it was for the children and we all need that from time to time.

  33. This is such a fantastic piece of writing. I’m a performing arts graduate who is told on countless occasions that performing is useless, but I have always very strongly believed in the power of theatre and creative arts for children and adults with autism, and this piece of beautiful writing highlights this. Your writing is powerful, witty and inspiring, so much so that this piece of writing is a fundamental source of inspiration for my current venture into developing a business centering around developing performing arts workshops and classes for children with autism, as I have found in the Midlands (UK), there is a distinct lack of opportunity for children and their parents to explore this as a form of expression and fun! I would be absolutely thrilled if I could get an opportunity to discuss my idea with such a fantastic and spirited individual. If you could spare me even five minutes via e-mail, I would be so pleased!

    Sophie Meredith

  34. Hi, I just received a newsletter from the Birmingham Hippodrome and it included details of a relaxed performance of their pantomime this year, Snow White. It reminded me of when I read this blog entry and I thought it may be of some use to you or other readers of this blog. Here’s the link they enclosed for more information: http://www.birminghamhippodrome.com/default.asp?Id=448&sC=page1%20&utm_source=wordfly&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=MKT-NewsletterAugust2013PART1&utm_content=version_A

  35. Thank you so much for sharing your experience of this…I’m in tears from reading it, and am now counting down to the 24th to book tickets for the equivalent performance in Sydney next year with my daughter.

  36. I too am in tears reading about you and your son’s wonderful day out. I live in Melbourne but am seriously considering travelling up to Sydney to share the experience with my 18 year old son. Autism can at times be quite isolating for families. It would be great to be able to share such an experience in a supportive environment. Congratulations and thank you to all involved.

    1. Julie I would say that if it’s possible for you to make the journey then do! It was such a positive, affirming, wonderful experience and you’re absolutely right about how great it is to share it with other families who understand your own. Please let me know if you make it there, and if so what it is like for you!

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