A Must See Movie: “Autism: The Musical”

By Lisa Jo Rudy – About.com

I’ve been hearing buzz about Autism: The Musical for a long time — and never heard a negative word about it. Now, I know why. It’s a thought-provoking journey into the lives of several American families living with autism. Its focus is on the children, but its range is much broader and deeper. As a mom with a child on the autism spectrum, I found it truly hit home. The best part? Elaine Hall, creator of The Miracle Project, is building a package to allow others to replicate her success.

A Musical About Autism?!
I originally assumed that Autism: The Musical was, in fact, a musical about autism. It isn’t. It’s a documentary about a California drama coach/educator/autism mom named Elaine Hall, who decided to form an organization called The Miracle Project. Its purpose is to involve children with autism and their families in creating and producing a musical.

Tricia Regan, the director, did a terrific job of digging into the lives of the children and their families, and of shining a bright light on the joys, frustrations, and sheer intensity of living with autism in America. Sadly, though, the musical itself is presented only in bits and snippets.

The Cast of Autism: The Musical
Regan and Hall spent months searching for a cast for this film. Regan explains, “I wanted kids who represented the full autism spectrum, and at least one kid who could give language to their experience. I wanted parents who were also eloquent…. When you make a documentary, you shoot and shoot; the film makes itself in the edit room. It’s like doing an improv art piece with reality. We spent at least a month and a half meeting people, talking with them, going to their houses, explaining the parameters.”

In the end, the film centered on five children and their families. Of these, two children are highly verbal; two have low language abilities; and one (Hall’s son, Neal) is non-verbal. The families were, to a degree, self-selected: All are at least middle class (at least one is quite wealthy), and of course all are willing and able to engage in a time-and-energy intensive project with no specific therapeutic focus.

The flavor of the film is definitely “California-centric.” Included among the families are musician Stephen Stills (of Crosby Still and Nash), a mom who had starred in Norman Lear comedies and had even posed for Playboy magazine, a film producer, and an acting coach. Each family has its own issues — and of the five families presented, two had gone through a divorce, one was in the process of a split, and one wound up splitting during the six-month period of filming.

The Kids
The film introduces the viewer to five children, all of whom have their issues and talents. Through home videos, interviews, and documentary filming of events, we get a glimpse into each child’s history, home life, and present situation.

Lexi is a 14-year-old girl with a beautiful voice, a warm personality, and serious issues with socialization, language, and acquisition of basic life skills.

Wyatt, 10, is a bright and articulate boy who has been relegated to the “special” class in school. He clearly has a talent for drama (and, according to Elaine Hall, has continued in the Miracle Project — acting and now mentoring other children).

Adam, 9, is a cellist and singer with limited language and social skills.

Henry, 10, is absolutely fascinated with dinosaurs and reptiles. Diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, he also has sensory issues that make it tough for him to sit through Dad Stephen Stills’ concerts.

Neal, age 12, is Hall’s son. He is the most profoundly disabled of the group, with no verbal speech at all. Hall and Regan describe him as an athlete. Regan says, “If he weren’t autistic, he’d be a football player!”

The Parents
This film shows autism parents as they really are, for better and for worse. In fact, I was amazed at how familiar each parent seemed — and almost shocked at parents’ willingness to be shown, warts and all, on national television (HBO).

Lexi’s mom, recently divorced, shares her depression and anxiety about her life overall and about her daughter’s future. Both she and her ex husband are overwhelmingly concerned about Lexi’s adult life, and even express a hope that she will die before they do — so she will never be without a home.

Adam’s dad, now estranged from his mom, is bitter because of his wife’s obsession with Adam’s autism. Mom, meanwhile, spins out of control when she thinks her son’s cello solo will be cut from the final musical production.

We join Wyatt’s parents in a meeting with a horrific lawyer, who offers to charge them $100,000 to attempt to push the school district to change his classroom setting.

All of these people are very real. The intensity, the obsession, the frustrations, the anger… and the sense that a child’s autism (even when relatively high functioning) can and should be the central focus of an entire family’s life.

Why Watch This Film?
Autism: The Musical is an ideal film for schools; for grandparents; for autism support groups; for siblings; even for churches and synagogues. It provides a true-to-life vision of the vast spectrum of autism — and opens eyes to the overwhelming intensity that parents of children on the spectrum seem to share.

It’s also a wonderful introduction to why it’s a good idea to provide programs and opportunities for kids with autism (and their parents) that are NOT all about therapy. As a result of the film, parents across the United States and around the world will discover that even kids with significant disabilities are talented and able — and worthy of respect. While that message is important for the general population, it’s especially important for parents whose lives have become one long round of doctors visits, therapy sessions, and support group meetings.

What Happened Next?
After watching the film, I found myself frustrated. All these kids had displayed amazing talents — yet at the end, it seemed that they all returned to the frustrations and anxieties of their former lives.

But not so. It turns out that the film is a bit misleading. In fact, Hall has taken The Miracle Project much further than is suggested in the documentary. It’s important to know that the project has continued, with many more productions. Some of the kids in the documentary have continued with the program. Wyatt, for example, has been in four shows so far and is taking a leadership role. Lexi, the singer, has cut two of the songs in the show for iTunes. Adam has indeed continued with his cello — and is doing well musically.

Make Your Own Miracle
Hall notes that The Miracle Project offers an opportunity for kids and their parents to think about things outside of autism. Like any other family involved in a musical production, they’re involved with details like costume design, publicity, make up, and all the other intriguing aspects of theater. And, like any other family, they have a chance to sit back and take pride in their child’s ability to perform — and perform well.

Think this sounds like a good idea? If so, you’ll want to stay tuned. Hall says: “I’ve been getting inquiries from all over the country and around the world of people interested in replicating the program. We’re putting together a package with an inspirational how-to, sheet music, play, info. We’re also starting a training program that will train people in how we work. It’s very replicable — I’ve trained plenty of actors and singer who have never worked with people with autism before. Love and acceptance is most important.”

Youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G43qNZjmfz0


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