Nashville Opera shares research touting benefits of autism-friendly arts program created with VKC TRIAD

Children watching performance

The Nashville Opera has long been a community partner of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment & Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (VKC TRIAD), working together to create sensory-friendly programming designed for families of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and/or other intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). After years of collaboration, the Opera recently published a brief synopsis known as a “white paper” sharing research conducted on the benefits of inclusive ALL-ACCESS OPERA program within the community and across the country.

Lauren Weaver, M.S., BCBA

Lauren Weaver, M.S., BCBA

“The Nashville Opera was one of TRIAD’s first community partners in 2013, when TRIAD’s Community Engagement Program formally began,” said Lauren Weaver, M.S., BCBA, Coordinator of Community Engagement with the Inclusion Network of Nashville. “They hit the ground running making a purposeful effort to build capacity within their organization to increase accessibility to their work for everyone in our community. They are now leading the country with this work in the opera field.

“Throughout the years, TRIAD has provided trainings and resource development support, promoted, and attended their modified children’s operas each year,” Weaver continued. “As the Opera has been successful in building capacity, we’ve been honored by the leadership role they have taken to influence other organizations nationally to become more accessible and inclusive. This white paper is a great example of the work they are doing to increase accessibility in Nashville, but also influence other organizations to also make this a priority.”

In 2014, after a year of collaboration, TRIAD and the Nashville Opera Association (NOA) developed an evidence-based toolkit for the Opera’s very first sensory-friendly performance at the Noah Liff Opera Center.

Anna Young smiling

Anna Young

“We presented an operatic version of The Billy Goat’s Gruffas part of our education tour’s free community performances,” said Nashville Opera Director of Education Anna Young. “After that, Nashville Opera hosted a sensory-friendly performance every year. We received such fantastic feedback from our community families in attendance, it was evident the tools should be made available to every school we reach during the tour. By 2016, we shared the toolkit with participating schools—we visit about 45 schools each year—and began to receive testimonies from educators describing the impact of the toolkit and highlighting unexpected benefits. Teachers were using the toolkit not only as a resource for students on the autism spectrum, but also students with different learning styles, as well as English as a second language learners.”

In 2018, Nashville Opera teamed up with Minneapolis-based research and evaluation consultancy ACT Research to take a closer look at the toolkit and its effectiveness.

“At that time, Nashville Opera was the only documented opera company creating sensory supports,” said Young. “We desired to share these vital tools with other opera organizations in the country and first partnered with Arizona Opera, Pensacola Opera, and Michigan Opera Theatre. Toolkits were created for each company, free of charge and tailored to fit their unique programming. We only asked that they join us in passing along our survey to help with our research. We now refer to this growing program as ‘All-Access Opera Education.‘”

The report generated from the research became a four-page white paper titled “ALL-ACCESS OPERA: Having the Right Tools Means Opera for Everyone!” Results from the study show that, of the 75 survey respondents, 65 were teachers, and 79 percent of them had experience working with or caring for children/students with a variety of learning or developmental disabilities. Reported learning differences among the students included English language learners (79 percent), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD, 76 percent), ASD (67 percent), and other learning differences (33 percent).

Survey responses revealed the following:

  • 100 percent of the respondents would recommend the toolkit to others who serve children/students with varied disabilities or challenges;
  • 92 percent agreed the toolkit creates a more positive, engaging experience for students;
  • 87 percent agreed the toolkit makes them more likely to bring these students to a performance.

Based on survey results and teachers’ feedback from this Innovation Project, Nashville Opera now has conclusive evidence that the ALL-ACCESS OPERA toolkit helps not only children with special needs, but all children including English language learners. The toolkit caters to a variety of learning styles, promotes understanding, creates a more positive learning experience, bolsters reading, and helps children stay engaged—all while supporting teachers.

Young and the NOA staff enjoy working closely with TRIAD staff and hope to continue their longtime collaboration in the years to come.

“Nashville Opera is very proud to be a part of VKC TRIAD’s Inclusion Network of Nashville (INN),” said Young. “NOA staff attended the first meeting in 2017, and we are thrilled to see the growth of the network as more opportunities are created to engage the community and share information about accessibility.

“It feels great to share the joy of music and singing with our families and welcome them into a safe and supportive space,” Young said.

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.

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