GSO holds concert for autistic classical music lovers in Cobb

Jennifer Schwenker’s twin sons have a love of classical music.

Benjamin and Samuel, 13, though, sometimes find it hard to sit still during performances.

When her sons, who have moderate-to-severe autism, get excited or overly stimulated, they may flap their arms, which can be distracting to others in the audience. They may hum along with the music or make little chirping sounds.

“I operate under the assumption that we’re going to try everything that we can try,” Schwenker said. However, “we’re always ready to abort the mission. If we take them to the movies or different events, we understand that we might have to leave early.”

The Georgia Symphony Orchestra wants to make such visits easier for parents of autistic children.

The Marietta-based GSO, in collaboration with Autism Speaks, will hold a “sensory-friendly concert” at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Marietta Performing Arts Center.

The concert, which will feature selections from classical music to the 21st century, is designed for people with autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs an individual’s ability — in varying degrees — to communicate and interact with others.

About 1 percent of the world population has autism spectrum disorder, and the prevalence in the United States is estimated at 1 in 68 births, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s a common trait in many people with autism, that they have a connection to music,” said Susan Stensland, GSO’s executive director. “We wondered how many people could benefit from a concert designed for children with special needs.”

Stensland met the Schwenkers after they attended a concert a couple of years ago. They told her that their sons were mesmerized by the performance and that “they rarely experience times of peace.”

They discussed ways to help other families enjoy the symphony.

The sensory-friendly concert will be the first of its kind for the Cobb County-based orchestra, and it will only sell less than half of the 730-seat capacity venue. Doing so will allow individuals to have more room to move around and dance, if necessary. Concertgoers are also invited to sing, hum or make as many sounds as they want.

There are also tweaks to the musical offerings. Selections won’t have sudden changes in dynamics so that there are no alarming musical surprises.

Additional features include a quiet area outside the theater in case they need to get away for a moment, and an instrument petting zoo.

Jennifer Schwenker hopes the concert will open a new world for other individuals with autism.

“It’s comforting for parents that we’re not going to be in a situation where people are going to get upset or angry,” she said.


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