LAU’s Second Autism-Friendly Concert Creates Christmas Cheer

Christmas carols, festive decorations and open spaces inspire the children to engage with the performers and their surroundings.

By Hanan Nasser

A choir of singers from LAU and around Beirut treated the audience to traditional Christmas songs.
The children’s choir was made up of students from Keys’n Cords Music Academy.

It was the perfect Saturday morning. The space outside the Safadi Fine Arts Building was decorated for Christmas, and campus buzzed with the low intensity of a Saturday morning. But things were about to get lively with the beginning of a special concert, put on as part of the Imagine Workshop and Concert Series (IWCS) outreach initiative.

The concert was the second such event held on LAU’s Beirut campus for individuals on the autism spectrum under the artistic direction of Dr. Seba Ali, assistant professor of Music at the Department of Communication Arts and IWCS director. Guests included members of the Autism Awareness Association and the Lebanese Autism Society, LAU community members, students and interested passersby.

Dr. Ali chose the theme, Christmas Carols, as the carols would be familiar among the audience, which would offer a motivating way to explore more spontaneous communication between the audience and the performers, she said.

Welcoming the guests, Dr. Ali introduced the nature of the sensory-friendly event and the drive behind it. She then explained that the audience members were free to express their feelings and engagements in any way they liked by swaying, moving, singing along, and interacting with the percussion instruments, reassuring them that nothing was off limits.

The reason why the performance setting was outdoors was to give “ample opportunity and freedom to the audience members to explore their surroundings and communicate with it while communicating with us, the performers, as it is very important to achieve the three-way communication,” said Dr. Ali.

Children played hide and seek and catch, while some caressed the campus cats and others sat alongside their parents who were enjoying the music.

“This is the first time we come to LAU to attend a Christmas concert,” said Mohamad Kaissi, a parent at the event. “The kids enjoyed the songs performed by the children’s choir.” He also commented on the comfortable outdoor setting, adding that both he and his wife were able to enjoy the performance while their sons played.

The concert included performances by two choirs conducted by IWCS’s artist-in-residence, American-Lebanese Soprano Christine Moore, and part-time Lecturer of Music Reem Deeb, who also gave a solo performance with Dr. Ali accompanying on the piano.

The adult choir consisted of 16 singers from LAU and around Beirut. The children’s choir, meanwhile, was made up of students from Keys’n Cords Music Academy. The audience was treated to traditional songs, including Jingle BellsTalj Talj (Snow, Snow) and O, Holy Night, among others.

“My son loves music. And I wanted to bring him here to watch the concert,” said Sonia Ashou, whose son is on the autism spectrum. “He enjoyed it and was even humming along with the singers.” She said she makes it a point to take him to autism-friendly events like this one.

“This is something that comforts. I was very much at ease. He just went with his brother to take a photo at the Christmas booth,” she said.

Sensory-friendly events are important for individuals on the autism spectrum because some “are either hyper-responsive or hypo-responsive to particular stimuli in their environment,” said Associate Professor of Education Ahmed Oueini, who has studied the condition.

Dr. Oueini offered parents tips to help put autistic children at ease, such as having them use noise-canceling headphones in cafeterias, auditoriums or on the street. “But let them decide when and how long to use them, as long as they don’t use them all the time. We don’t want them to isolate themselves.”

Dr. Ali said the philosophy behind having outreach activities as part of IWSC is to “include more diverse communities and to have more connections with audience members who are not able to come to our concerts because of the stringent concert etiquette.”

The event, she added, is also an opportunity to raise awareness about autism and to encourage diversity and inclusiveness, both on and off campus.