At Circus Starr, our mission is to create accessible community circus events throughout the UK that positively engage with children with physical disabilities, learning difficulties and families from disadvantaged backgrounds.
One strand of what we do is to work with children with autism.
Since we first launched in 1987, time and again parents would tell us how their autistic child, who could not usually cope with unknown situations, had sat through our entire show mesmerised, or how their child who could get very distressed in crowds had been dancing ringside with their light-up windmill shouting: “come and boogie everyone!”
Even though from the outside we appeared to break all the rules (loud music, lots of people, bangs, surprises) for some reason we were naturally “autism-friendly” and children felt relaxed in our big top. However, because new experiences and environments can provoke anxiety in children on the autistic spectrum, we also had to find a way to prepare those who were too anxious to make it that far.
We wanted to produce an app that could somehow capture and convey the essence, magic and unpredictability of circus for a very literal audience. We needed to prepare a child who didn’t like surprises for a show full of surprises … without ruining the surprise.
With funding from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts and inspired by the concept of the Social Stories – where visual stories are used to create positive visualisations that reduce stress and enable the development of coping strategies – we set out to create an interactive storybook where children could make their own circus story from a “bank” of related images. They could then personalise these stories by uploading their own images, captions and footage: a virtual, ringside circus experience without ever leaving the house.
“When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
We first heard those words from Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, and with them ringing in our ears, we knew we had to create a universal “circus experience” template that could be adapted to suit the different needs of the 700,000 people with autism in the UK. This also meant that many elements from our original scope ended up on the cutting room floor as what seemed like a good idea at the outset turned out to be “un” autism-friendly in practice.