They call it “The Gentle Nutcracker.”

Outwardly, it doesn’t seem much different from the Cincinnati Ballet’s standard production, known officially as Frisch’s Presents The Nutcracker. The giant mice are there. So are the Russian dancers and the dancing poodles and the snowflake ballerinas.

But to the young audience members who will attend this performance, scheduled for Dec. 22 at the Aronoff Center’s Procter & Gamble Hall, the differences are immense.

“The performance is for anyone—children, mostly—with a level of sensory sensitivity that has made it difficult for them to come in the past,” says Julie Sunderland, Cincinnati Ballet’s director of education and outreach. That includes children with an extraordinarily wide range of disorders, from those on the autism spectrum to a host of social cognitive disorders.

For all their many differences, the thing that these children have in common is that situations that are out of the ordinary or are filled with unexpected stimuli can overwhelm them.

Sitting in a theater is particularly difficult. Think about it. They’re in a huge—and unfamiliar—space that occasionally goes completely dark. Then the darkness is interrupted by high intensity stage lighting and all manner of special effects.

The very things that most of us love about going to the theater create a sensory overload that these young people are simply unable to process adequately.

This is not a tiny group of people, mind you. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder. 

For Sunderland, whose job it is to find ways for Cincinnati Ballet to interact with underserved populations, this was a challenge and an opportunity.

Dealing with non-traditional students isn’t new for Sunderland. Cincinnati Ballet already offers a Saturday dance class for children with Down Syndrome and co-hosts an annual Ballerina for a Day program with the Cure Starts Now organization.

But non-traditional audiences are a different matter. 

Several other American dance companies have experimented with performances of this sort. New Jersey Ballet offered production of Pinocchio for special needs children. And Houston Ballet’s second company offered a pared-down, one-hour version of Coppélia in a 175-seat studio theater earlier this year. 

Offering a full-length performance of The Nutcracker to special populations is especially significant. In the 42 years since Cincinnati Ballet premiered the ballet it has become part of the fiber of Greater Cincinnati’s holiday celebrations. Everywhere you turn during the holiday season, you’ll see images of the ballet’s title character. By finding a way to accommodate children with sensory disabilities, Cincinnati Ballet has given these kids—and their parents—an additional way to enter the mainstream of community life.

“There are many parts of the show that could be difficult for a child to deal with,” says Heather Theders, an occupational therapist and a sustaining member of Cincinnati Ballet’s board. “The sound of the cannon during the battle scene, for instance. It’s so unexpected. For many of these children, it could be so alarming that it might be the end the show for them.”

So there were two areas of that Sunderland and the company had to examine. First were the ways that the show itself might need to be changed. Then, there would be things that they could do to make the facility—the Aronoff Center—and the entire experience more accommodating.

Sunderland assembled a group of professionals: occupational therapists, physical therapists and others who work with special needs children. After discussing the project to see if it was even feasible, they met at the Aronoff last Dec. 27 to actually watch the ballet.

They assessed every element they could think of, from the volume of the music to the brightness of the lights, from the dancing dragon in the Land of the Sweets to the flying bed at the opening of the second act.

It turned out that there wasn’t much about the show itself that would have to change. The cannon would have to go. Much too startling.

But there were many things that would need to change about the surroundings.

The first was to keep the house lights on.

“Being able to see around them is major for these children,” says Theders.

“I think you’ll find that there is a fair amount of movement in and out of the theater,” says Jennifer Sommers, associate director of education and community engagement at the Houston Ballet. “If someone gets overwhelmed—and that was an issue with some children—it’s perfectly acceptable for them to get up, leave the theater and come back when they are ready.”

Among the other accommodations:

• “Quiet areas” in the lobby, where children and their parents can retreat and regroup before returning to the show.

• Additional space around theater seats. For some children, having strangers sitting so close in an unfamiliar situation can be difficult. So the box office will provide buffers of several seats or rows, if necessary.

• Specially trained ushers. When Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performed a sensory-friendly The Nutcracker, they found that a few children were more comfortable lying down in the aisle. Ushers accommodated that.

• Special parking. It’s not finalized yet, but Sunderland is trying to arrange nearby parking so children can know the route they will have to walk to the theater ahead of time.

That preparation, incidentally, is key to easing children’s stress. So at the advisors’ suggestion, Cincinnati Ballet will create a so-called “social story.”

“It walks children through the day so they know exactly what to expect,” says Sunderland. “We’ll have a print version and a video version and basically, it will cover everything we can think of. You know, showing what the lobby looks like and explaining that you may have to wait in line for the restrooms. There will be pictures of the rest areas. And we’ll help them develop words to share what they’re feeling, so it may say, ‘I will tell my mom or dad that I need quiet time.’”

In short, it will detail as much as possible about the potential stumbling blocks for the children attending the ballet.

Jeremy Schulz’s five-year-old daughter Megan has Down Syndrome. She’s been a part of Cincinnati Ballet’s Saturday morning classes. But she hasn’t seen The Nutcracker yet.

“At times, we’ve taken her to traditional movies,” says Schulz. “We tend to go to the afternoon movies because there is a little more room to move, if needed. And it’s not such an issue if she wants to cheer or clap at what other people might feel isn’t an appropriate moment.”

Seeing The Nutcracker, though, seemed like something that was beyond her reach at the moment.

Until, that is, Sunderland told them about the sensory-friendly show.

“I think my daughter will really love it,” says Schulz. “She enjoys watching people taking classes while she waits for her own class to begin. And she loves dancing herself. To have an opportunity to see people dancing on the stage? It will be a totally new experience.”

The sensory-friendly performance of “Frisch’s Presents The Nutcracker” takes place at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 22. For information and tickets, call the Cincinnati Ballet box office at 513-621-5282.