Can an App Open Up the World to Children on the Autism Spectrum?

08/06/2016 17:19 | Updated 08 June 2016



It was like Britain's Got Talent, but just with all the best bits.

That's how a child at the Rowan School in Sheffield, whose pupils all have a diagnosis of autism, described our circus show. The pupils attended, as do all of our audiences, free of charge and with their entire family so that they can enjoy the show as a family group.

Circus Starr, is the UK's only not-for-profit circus and also the only one in the UK to travel to a new location every other day as we seek to provide the very highest quality circus event for children with physical disabilities, learning difficulties low income families. We tour three times a year to a total of 75 locations. One area of our work is with children with autism.


Since Circus Starr was established in 1987, parents of children on the autism spectrum would tell us how their child who could not usually cope with unusual situations had been enthralled by the magic of the circus. Although a circus performance would not seem to be very 'autism-friendly' with loud music, crowds, lights and surprises parents reported that their child enjoyed the experience. However, new experiences and environments are a source of anxiety to many children on the autism spectrum and some did not get past the entrance to the Big Top. The unexpected experience, the queue, the new faces, not knowing what to expect - it was all too much. This resulted in a 'no show' for the circus and a treat missed by a family that desperately needed a special family experience in a welcoming, relaxed, environment. We needed to find a way to help those families to get through the doors of the tent to witness the thrills and spills of life in the Big Top.

We wanted to create an app that could clearly explain in a visual way what circus was all about - the excitement, the glamour and the unpredictable nature of it - for a very literal audience. The app needed to be able to prepare a child who, most probably, did not like surprises for a show full of surprises ... and yet without ruining the surprise that is an essential part of circus performance. It needed to do all this without losing their interest or adding to their anxiety about new experiences.


The original development of the app was made possible by funding from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts and was inspired by the idea of Social Stories TM. Social Stories TM use visual stories to create positive ideas to reduce stress and create coping strategies and have been successfully used by children on the autism spectrum. We created an interactive storybook that allowed children to create their own story about the circus from a selection of images, film footage and captions about a Circus Starr show. They could also personalise these stories by uploading their material such as photographs of themselves and their family, or of the transport they would use to get to the venue, to create their own circus story. The aim was to make the whole experience from start to finish very familiar in advance of the trip to the circus.

Research suggests that we are on the right path and the app was awarded the 'Best New Technological Innovation' Award at the 2015 Autism Professional Awards. The app was initially developed for iOS but an android version is currently being tested and will be released soon.

As one of nine previously funded Digital R & D Fund for the Arts projects Circus Starr's 'Show & Tell' app was chosen to be part of pioneering pilot twelve week digital arts and culture accelerator, supported by Arts Council England and Nesta and designed to encourage arts organisations to be more digitally entrepreneurial. We are now looking to gain further investment for the app to create a "white label" product that can be licensed and re-purposed by other organisations to create more equal access for the 2.8 million people in the UK whose lives are touched by autism.

What does the future hold for the Show & Tell app? We initially saw the opportunity for the app to be licensed by other arts venues and producers or by visitor attractions such as theatre visits, museums and galleries as those are the obvious extensions of its current use. However, parents and teachers have pointed to its potential for supporting the transition into reception classes and Year 7 or preparing for unusual activities such as a Christmas play. We are also beginning to see how it could be used in wider commercial settings. The technology could readily be re-purposed for use by supermarkets and other shopping outlets, cinemas, holiday companies, airports and even entire towns and cities. Many outlets and destinations are seeking to offer autism friendly experiences such as autism friendly shopping times and cinema screenings. However, parents tell us that although they appreciate these opportunities they also long to be able to go shopping at a time that suits them or visit the cinema with other friends and family outside of a special screening. The Show & Tell app has the potential to make that wish a reality by preparing their child for new experiences and reducing their anxiety. As one parent told us:

Apps for autistic children are absolutely priceless. We've never been to a circus before and rarely go out as a family. The app was crucial - as he trusts what he sees in an app.

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