In addition to presenting engaging art that is thoughtfully curated to enrich the lives of children on the autism spectrum and their families, the month-long Big Umbrella Festival also includes professional development sessions that bring together artists, arts administrators, and presenters to create community around the topic of neurodiversity. One artist who's taking advantage of this is Sonia De Los Santos, a singer-songwriter who tours the world with a musical message that inspires audiences of all ages. As the festival got started this week, De Los Santos shared her thoughts on inclusivity and awareness.


Eileen Willis: What sparked your interest in attending the Big Umbrella Festival?

Sonia De Los Santos: Hoping to learn, really! In the last couple of years I've been hearing more about sensory-friendly shows and the great impact they have on audiences on the autism spectrum. This festival seemed like the perfect opportunity to be educated on this topic and to be inspired to create more inclusive shows in the future.

EW: What age range do you typically see in the audiences for your children's performances?

SD: We play Latin American Folk music for all ages, from newborns to grandparents, but the typical children's age ranges around 2 to 9.

EW: What is your favorite part about playing for young audiences?

SD: There's many things, but one of the main reasons is because it gives me the invaluable opportunity to plant seeds in these young people's minds. I carefully choose every single message that is sent from the stage—from the songs we play, the countries we represent, the instruments we introduce, the languages we sing in, who's in the band…

I've given a lot of thought to the responsibility I have as an artist working with children and the importance of my role in their lives to present a message message of hope and an opportunity to imagine a brighter, more inclusive tomorrow. I also like to play for children because there's a very good amount of honesty in it. Getting in front of an auditorium full of kids takes a lot of energy. To me, it's not so much about jumping up and down during the show (I really don't), but about being present and connecting with every single child, parent, and teacher in the room.

One thing I've learned is that children know right away when you're not 100% in the game with them, and they're quick to show you. I love this space of honesty, and it's something that keeps me on my toes when I'm trying to read an audience and quickly adjust according to what they're responding to.

EW: Are you already creating performances for children on the autism spectrum or is this a new area for you?

SD: It's definitely a new area for me on the creative side, but I've been very lucky to have been part of sensory-friendly shows created by one of my musical mentors and friends, Dan Zanes, in the last few years.

EW: What do you think the performing arts field could learn from the work that's being done through initiatives like the Big Umbrella Festival?

SD: I think it raises very important questions for presenters that have to do with the communities they are serving and how they are presenting art for them. These conversations will ultimately get them thinking about creating goals and initiatives to reach underserved groups that may not be present in their theaters because they don't feel like it's a safe place for them. This not only applies to families with children on the autism spectrum, but extends to people of different demographics and minorities as well.

EW: What do you hope the impact of the Big Umbrella Festival will be?

SD: To create awareness. The more we talk about these opportunities to be more inclusive, the more we learn. In fact, I think I just learned a little from this conversation!

I'm very excited to meet artists from different countries and art fields. I'm sure the different perspectives on the same topics would be very enlightening, and I can't wait to put into practice everything I'll learn.


Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.