Caroline Umeda, who has worked as an Occupational Therapist at Boyer Children’s Clinic for seven years, vividly recalls visiting the theater as a child. “It enriched my life to be part of the cultural experience of going to the theater,” she shares. “I remember how much fun it was to get dressed up, to find your assigned seat, and experience the event with my entire family.” It’s these memories that motivate her today to create the same opportunities for children and families in Seattle – experiences that are accessible to those of all abilities and strengths.
In her practice at Boyer, Caroline works with children facing physical and developmental delays and their families to improve motor, cognitive, sensory processing, communication and play skills. Occupational therapists optimize each child’s ability to independently achieve their daily activities, and work with families to meet the needs of their infant/toddler. Caroline works alongside parents in their homes, in community settings or at Boyer’s in-house gym to help children with special needs understand and engage with their environment.
Caroline is also pursuing her Ph.D. in Rehabilitation Science at the University of Washington, and has taken a special interest in providing parents with the tools, resources and strategies to participate in typical family experiences – such as going to the zoo, museums and theater. “I’m passionate about this, because I believe every child should have equitable opportunities to participate in our community,” she shares.
As part of her doctoral studies, and under the guidance of her faculty advisor, Tracy Jirikowic, PhD, Caroline recently teamed with the Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) as an occupational therapy consultant to promote accessibility in their drama school and help develop a relaxed and sensory –friendly performance of Goodnight Moon.
In collaboration with SCT, Caroline worked with the theater, actors, parent focus groups to create a theatre-going experience and environment supportive of children with a variety of needs and abilities. This included analyzing the performance for sensory-rich moments, facilitating pre- and post-performance focus groups, leading a “meet the theater event” for families and children, creating environmental modifications to the theater, and co-designing support tools for parents to utilize.
One specific tool was the design of a “social story” for parents to read with their children. A social story is a written guide to describe any type of social situation. For the performance, children and parents were given a narrative of visiting the theater beforehand so they could anticipate the visual and auditory aspects of the event, with the goal of increasing each child’s engagement in the experience. Parents were also given a play-by-play of the performance in order to prepare children for times during the show where sensory processing may be challenging.
The relaxed performance of Goodnight Moon, held in April 2015, was a tremendous success, with dozens of children experiencing the theater setting for the very first time. “Caroline’s work with SCT showcases the forefront of research in this field,” shares Mike Stewart, Executive Director of Boyer Children’s Clinic. “We are so proud of the work that she has done and we are grateful for Caroline’s authentic and transformative commitment to inclusion and equity in our community.”
Taking this philosophy forward, Caroline hopes that all children will be able to experience the arts, just as she had experienced as a child. “My work is aimed to encourage all families to be somewhere together as a family to take in the magic of the theater.”