Source: Wikipedia

“I love, love, love, love, LOVE this work,” says Leslie Fanelli, Master Teaching Artist at the Paper Mill Playhouse, midway through a lively discussion of the theater organization’s involvement with Spectrum360.

And the feeling is mutual, because Spectrum360 students love the Paper Mill Playhouse!

For nearly eight years the Milburn arts center’s “Theater for Everyone” program has introduced Academy360 Upper School students to the joys of performance arts, while also building on essential life skills.

“Our main goal is to use the medium of theater to improve communication, cooperation, self-esteem, language skills, body language, eye contact – and that comes with acting and movement and music and dance and even mime,” says Fanelli.

students acting out a song
Students incorporate movement and music in the class.

“Theater naturally improves all of those things in a low-anxiety setting – and it’s also fun,” she laughs. “If it’s not fun, I’m not doing my job!”

Over the years Fanelli and her students have tackled performing everything from Pete Seeger’s Abiyoyo to Aesop’s Fables, with Fanelli working in life lessons and language concepts alongside dancing to a rollicking good tune.

And in learning to make the spatial decisions required in mime, or talking about things such as morals found in Aesop’s tales, Fanelli believes that students find sophisticated concepts easier to understand.

“When we’re finished and I ask the students ‘What is the moral of the story, what have we learned?’ – they come up with the greatest answers! They get it!”

Upper School students taking part in the after school program participate in sessions both at school and at the playhouse, where they get to experience being on a real stage. But Fanelli also brings the joy of theater to Academy360 Lower School.

Middle school students have attended autism-friendly performances at the Playhouse each semester since 2017. In the days before heading to the theater, Fanelli conducts hands-on drama and music workshops with each classroom, designed to help students understand and enjoy the performance to come.

Leslie Fanelli and Producing Artistic Director Mark Hoebee with the Tony Award the Paper Mill Playhouse received in 2016 for Best Regional Theatre.

Accompanied by an ABA specialist, Fanelli engages students in what to expect. Beginning with a social story, the specialist explains how they’ll get to the theater, what the theater looks like, where the refreshment stand is, what the theater looks empty, what the theater looks like full – every detail to the help the students feel comfortable.

Students receive character guides to help them understand what they’ll see on stage, what the characters look like, and what they’ll be doing. Then the classroom becomes a stage of its own – students are cast as the different characters while Fanelli walks – and dances, and sings – them through the plot… but only up to the cliffhanger!

“Our most recent show was Peter Pan,” says Fanelli. “In the classroom, we became Peter, Wendy, the Lost Boys! We flew to Neverland, met Captain Hook- we fought the alligator! But then – then they have to wait to find out what happens next. That’s the fun of the theater.”

Paper Mill Playhouse puts on a series of one-hour autism-friendly shows throughout the year, in addition to their annual two-act musical. Their “Theater for Everyone Autism-Friendly Performance Program” was designed and planned in cooperation with the Paper Mill Autism Advisory Team and the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University.

With low-lighting, modulated sounds, and freedom-of-movement, these sensory-adjusted performances allow everyone to enjoy the theater with minimal stress.

There is a wealth of information to be found on the Playhouse’s website about the supports and services offered to individuals on the spectrum and their families while attending a performance, including downloadable social stories and a video tour of the theater:


We’re grateful to have partners in the arts such as the Paper Mill Playhouse who offer important opportunities to our students and their families, as well as others on the spectrum or with developmental disabilities.

Paper Mill Playhouse’s  next autism-friendly performance is “Charlotte’s Web,” on June 14, 2020

Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive
Millburn, NJ 07041


“Theater for Everyone” at the Paper Mill Playhouse (from