Think "autism," and the words that follow usually aren't "the musical." But my preview of Autism: The Musical, which premières on HBO tomorrow night and will reair several times in April, has won me over on the power of the theater to create a community—and a chance to shine—for autistic children. The program portrays how a group of kids with autism wrote and performed a variety show—with a little help from their friends. It also tells the stories of their parents, particularly Elaine Hall, an acting coach in Los Angeles who—determined to create a nurturing place for her autistic son, Neal, then age 12—used her talents and connections in the performing arts community to launch the Miracle Project, a theater workshop for autistic children and their friends and family. I talked with Elaine about her family's saga and about the documentary.
Tell me about Neal. He can't talk, and you were told when he was very young that he should be institutionalized. It sounds like it took considerable effort to figure out how best to help him.
We adopted Neal when he was 23 months, from an orphanage in Russia. When I brought him home, he was quite sick. He had liver toxicity, malnutrition, scurvy; we spent the first year just dealing with that. When he was good and strong and healthy, our pediatrician said, "Something is not right." He gave us a diagnosis of autism. The therapies at the time were very behaviorally oriented (with the child coached to practice social or motor skills, like saying "hello"), and they just weren't working. Fortunately, the preschool Neal attended had a seminar with the child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan. I learned that all these protocols were necessary, but they could be done in a relationship-based way.
I had a theater group called Kids on Stage, and I started hiring the theater coaches to work with Neal, because they knew what it was like to be crazy and fun. I learned that actors and musicians and creative people could reach Neal a way that traditional therapists could not. The actors were trained by professional therapists, but the actors just came to Neal with this curiosity and acceptance. Rather than forcing Neal to act appropriately, we'd join his world. If he spun in circles, I'd turn it into "Ring Around the Rosie." If he flapped his arms, we'd flap our arms and become birds. We did this seven days a week, 10 hours a day, and he improved to the extent that he's able to attend school.
After that, it seems almost inevitable that you'd have a theater group for children with autism, too.
I didn't want to go back into coaching acting, because I didn't want to be away from Neal that much. I prayed and asked what I should do. The answer came back very strong: Teach special-needs kids with theater. Then I started another program for kids with autism. What's different about this is that it's really a theater program, and the kids happen to have autism.
That's right. In the beginning, the kids were hiding under tables and spinning in circles. It was really chaotic. The volunteers joined them, we introduced acting and movement, and gradually they became an ensemble. We see the kids through months of rehearsals, and then there they are on stage: singing, dancing, doing skits. One plays a cello solo. The show is so funny and so sweet. Did you know it was going to work?
I didn't know it would work. But I knew that what would work is that these kids would be loved. I also knew that theater is a great equalizer. On stage, everyone has a talent and can offer something. I also knew that it's great as a parent of an autistic child to be thinking about how to put together the cover of a program rather than thinking about what therapy I'm going to do. You got to be normal parents for a change.
The fact that my son held a sign and walked on stage, even if he only did it for his mom—that was amazing. Today, when he watches the film on television, he knows, "That's me." To be able to see himself and feel that pride and joy, it's a miracle. That's what Autism: The Musical reveals more than anything—the ability within the disability, that kids can shine, that they're kids first. These are children. They're someone's baby. They're children who happen to have this obstacle. The most troubling part of the documentary is seeing how many of the parents' marriages fell apart. Your own marriage did, too.
Having a child with a disability just adds stress to the already stressful institution of marriage. And with autism, you're told that there's this window of opportunity when they're very young, and if you don't act, they're going to end up in an institution. What I learned is that there's a skyscraper of opportunity. However, early intervention is essential. We need the public to support not just the autism community but to support these families, so that marriages don't collapse. Train your high school kid how to work with an autistic child so the mom and dad can have a date night. Go grocery shopping for the family. Call and say, "Hey, can I pick up milk for you?" I think that's really important.
How is Neal doing now?
Neal is almost 14. He's mainstreaming in school; he has a one-on-one aide. He uses a talking machine called a "Say-it! Sam" to communicate immediate needs. And he's typing his deeper thoughts. He also has his bar mitzvah next May. He typed his Torah portion. He typed that God helps him find patience with his autism. He typed, "My mom rescued me from a different life. Everything I have today is because of Mom." I'm tearing up, just hearing that.
Every child has a talent and can learn to fly.