Following The Warhol’s introduction last year of sensory-friendly gallery and studio programs for teens and adults, the museum sought to continue programming that would be welcoming and inclusive to a diverse audience. It solicited input from an advisory group and event co-presenters Autism Connection of Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy.
“It can be very challenging for people with autism and other sensory sensitivities to participate in social events that are noisy, crowded and overstimulating, or where their needs, behaviors and expressions are unwelcome,” says Danielle Linzer, the Warhol’s curator of education and interpretation, via email.
“When we asked what other kinds of programs and offerings they would like to see at the museum, the idea of a sensory-friendly disco came up again and again,” Linzer wrote.
The Sensory-Friendly Autism Acceptance Disco is designed to accommodate a wide range of needs and preferences, from sensory-avoidant to sensory-seeking. DJ Naeem will provide the soundtrack, but, instead of speakers, the music will be played through wireless headphones provided to attendees, allowing listeners to control the volume or omit the music altogether. There will also be a networking area for friends and family and planned transition periods for attendees to disengage from the event.
“When we plan a sensory-friendly event, we want to make the environment comfortable for people, like myself, who are sensitive to light, smell or sound. We alter light levels, lower volume and ask people to avoid perfume,” writes Jess Benham via email. Benham is an autistic doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh and director of public policy with the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy. “The silent disco allows us to effectively balance everyone’s needs for personalized volume, and, by providing a quiet space for escape, we give people a chance to take a break.”
Autistic people in Pennsylvania often face a long waiting list for support services. Advocacy groups also struggle to count the population of their constituency due to historically poor diagnosis rates, which can leave undiagnosed individuals homeless, institutionalized or incarcerated. Events like the disco draw attention to these issues.
“With the right kinds of support, and note I didn’t say a lot of support, sometimes a little goes a long way, we can keep people living well and participating in our community,” writes Luciana Randall, executive director of Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, via email.
The Warhol’s Linzer sums up nicely how events like this one dovetail with the overarching goals of the museum.
“As Andy Warhol once said, ‘Pop art is for everyone.’ In this spirit, we are actively committed to making the museum a welcoming and inclusive space for all different kinds of people, particularly those who don’t usually feel at home in museums,” she writes. “Plus, Andy loved a good party.”