Lunch Note Sketch

Autism and Theater Come Together

Contributors, Learn Something NewStephen SantaComment

I’m a Netflix enthusiast. Just like many Americans, I’ve spent countless hours streaming movies and tv shows.  Last week I stumbled upon Julie Andrew’s new Netflix original show called Julie’s Greenroom. It’s a show for pre-school aged kiddos and features a diverse cast of kid puppets and one very special human guest from the theater community every episode. As a theater director, I naturally had to give the show a try. In the first episode, Julie was sitting at her desk surrounded by her little friends made of felt and she said “Theater doesn’t discriminate.” Such a powerful line of dialogue for a show geared toward kids just learning how to color within the lines. But what an important message to send.

Students from Borland-Manor Elementary School exploring shadow puppetry in a Jumping Jack artist residency.

Students from Borland-Manor Elementary School exploring shadow puppetry in a Jumping Jack artist residency.

Theater doesn’t discriminate and theater doesn’t judge. Theater must be accessible to everyone. Yet how can we make theater accessible to kids on the Autism Spectrum? Rebecca (the co-founder of JJT) and I met over coffee just about a year ago to ponder this very question. How can we create a safe space for this specific audience and their families? We sprang into action and Jumping Jack Theater was born. Sensory, social, and learning disabilities tend to be invisible to the observer, and are sometimes called “hidden disabilities.” Society often has expectations for how people ought to behave in certain settings. When people with hidden disabilities act differently in a social situation, they are at risk for not being welcomed in community or public places. Learning, sensory, and social disabilities are frequently seen in people with a variety of conditions such as autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disability, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, or traumatic brain injuries. Individuals with these disabilities may interact with others in unusual or different ways and have repetitive behaviors that might be perceived by other patrons as disruptive. These repetitive behaviors can include twirling in circles, or flapping arms while jumping up and down. Jumping Jack aims to create a totally safe environment for our audiences where they won’t feel judged. We want our audiences and families to experience theater in a new and unique way. Our shows will feature sensory play, original music, innovative puppetry and interactive moments designed to engage ALL audiences. Through our productions, we are working hard to make theater in Pittsburgh, and hopefully beyond, truly accessible to all. 

Jumping Jack Theater, a children's theater company in Pittsburgh, PA, creates original works for audiences that benefit from sensory and autism-friendly strategies.
Jumping Jack Theater strives to connect with Autistic audiences and the autism community in a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment. 

For more information about our upcoming season please visit: or download their brochure (PDF).

Stephen Santa (Artistic Director) is a director, actor, and teaching artist based in Pittsburgh, Pa.  He staged over 30 productions, ranging from shows in educational settings to professional productions seen around the country. He was the assistant director of the Flashdance National Tour, the North American premiere of The Monster in the Hall and POP! A new musical starring Anthony Rapp at CITY Theatre, respectively. In New York, he directed concerts workshops of UNCHARTED: The Music of Anna K. Jacobs and TEETH a New Musical. Both were performed at the famed Ars Nova Theatre. In 2013, he was named one of the top directors in Pittsburgh by CBS Local On-line. Since 2008, Stephen served as a teaching artist for The Pittsburgh CLO Creative Vision Program which aims to build self-confidence, empower self-expression and model positive behavior for elementary and middle school students while engaging them in musical theater disciplines. In addition, for 15 summers Stephen worked as the Music Director for Camp AIM a YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh Summer Camp for children and young adults who have physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and communication challenges. He shares his passion and experience in the arts with over 1,500 students every year. Stephen is a member of Actors’ Equity Association and The Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. Please visit for more information.