Month: January 2013
For audiences with Autism, Broadway’s grandest theaters stage musicals to last a lifetime.
At a matinee of the Broadway show “Elf” on January 5, the audience was oddly restless. When the curtain rose, revealing a rosy-cheeked Wayne Knight wearing a white-and-red suit, a girl screamed, “Hi Santa!” followed by a boy’s cry of ”Quiet!” During the first dance number, as a line of elves popped off tiny little kicks, a child ran down the aisle and pelted a squishy toy at one of the dancers. Without missing a step, the elf made a one-handed catch. Throughout the first act, the audience grew increasingly noisy, but the actors, impressively, remained locked-in.
“There’s no sound like a theater full of autistic people,” says leading elf Jordan Gelber. “It was non-stop, except when there was music or a song. Then it was like all the sounds died away.”
This audience, made up entirely of people on the autism spectrum and their families, was there because of the Theatre Development Fund, a sprawling charity whose Autism Theatre Initiative has been producing afternoons like this since 2011. Several times a year, TDF turns a normally staid Broadway house into an autistic child’s paradise. Once you get used to the noise, you realize this is the happiest Broadway audience you’ve ever seen.
The project is the brainchild of Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs at TDF, whose goal is to open Broadway up to what she calls “a neglected audience.”
“It’s not okay anymore for families with a child or adult on the autism spectrum to stay home,” she says, “to not be able to go see a Broadway show like any other family.”
Before the matinee, Carling stood in the back of the theater, her striking gray hair making her easy to find. She said she was nervous, but that everything was going according to plan. Dozens of volunteers roamed the space, helping families get their discounted tickets, buy concessions, and navigate the cramped Hirschfeld Theatre lobby—an experience that can be overwhelming even for people not prone to sensory overload.
Upstairs, the bar was closed—a concession from the theater’s ownership, which allowed TDF to set up an activity space where restless audience members could burn off excess energy. There were also coloring books, noisemakers, and a huge reserve of the squishy balls known as “fidgets,” which volunteers handed out to anyone who asked.
“We try to get them back at the end of the show,” said volunteer Trish Mahalko. “Sometimes they walk, and that’s okay.”
Across the mezzanine, along a walkway lined with Al Hirschfeld’s striking pen-and-ink caricatures of forgotten productions like “Jacobowsky and the Colonel” and “St. Louis Woman,” the house manager’s office had been converted into a quiet area—a place for the over-stimulated to listen to classical music, put in earplugs, or lie down under a heavy lead blanket.
Inside the theater, a 1920’s-era Arabian palace on Manhattan’s West Forty-Fifth Street, there was a buzz usually absent from a Saturday matinee. The crowd found its seats. The lights dimmed. The audience cheered. “Elf” was about to begin.
The preparation for an autism-friendly matinee goes far beyond fidgets. TDF spent just over $117,000 to buy out the 1,424-seat theater, then resold the tickets at prices ranging from thirty-five to fifty-percent less than face value, a discount that Carling calls “crucial.”
This was the first ever Broadway show for many in the audience. To ready them for the experience, TDF collaborated with a group called Autism Friendly Spaces, which specializes in a technique called “social stories”—a standard teaching tool that combines words and pictures to explain new concepts to people who have trouble learning verbally. The social stories cover a range of issues that might crop up during an afternoon in the theater district, including navigating crowded spaces, dealing with unfamiliar theatrical sights and sounds, and understanding that, although the story of “Elf” is the same as the motion picture, they will not be seeing Will Ferrell.
“We try to focus on prevention strategies as much as possible,” says Jamie Bleiweiss, co-founder of Autism Friendly Spaces. “Preparing the audience ahead of time—before they come to the show—is the most important part.”
Based on the recommendations of Bleiweiss and other experts, TDF requested a few changes from “Elf’s” producers. The house lights were not completely dimmed. The actor’s microphones were turned down slightly. Volunteers at the front of the house used glow sticks to warn parents of anything that might be startling. Anything that could not be changed was incorporated into the preparatory materials given to the parents. For their next autism friendly performance, an April matinee of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” TDF asked that the villain Arachne hang herself by the waist instead of the neck. The producers refused, so a warning about the staged suicide will be included in the materials sent to parents before the show.
“That’s fine,” says Carling. “It’s a negotiation.”
Though nothing unusual was required of “Elf’s” actors, they were warned that the audience might appear restless, even if they were rapt. Don’t let it get to you, they were told. Just tell your story.
“Our underlying philosophy is, we don’t compromise the integrity of their performance,” says Bleiweiss. “Ever.”
Elf” was TDF’s fourth autism-friendly matinee, after “Mary Poppins” and two performances of “The Lion King” in 2011 and 2012. Last year, Micah Hollingworth of Jujamcyn Theaters, owners of the Hirschfeld, contacted TDF after taking his son, who is on the autism spectrum, to one of the “Lion King” shows.
His son resisted his first trip to the theater, but Hollingworth and his wife—who also works in the industry—insisted, eager for a way to teach their child about their work.
“The entire time there, he was clearly anxiety-ridden,” Hollingworth remembers. “And then the volunteers started interacting with us. They had the picture story. They had the fidgets and other things that he had a familiarity with, and he was able to participate and watch the entire show. He had a great time.”
His fear of theater eased, Hollingworth’s son has since been able to enjoy an ordinary Broadway performance. Hollingworth’s hope is that, after one or two autism-friendly performances, other people on the spectrum will be able to make the same transition. For him, the highlight of the “Elf” matinee was seeing parents let their guard down.
“They don’t get this opportunity often, right?” he explains. “You see people come in and sit down, and their shoulders drop. They exhale for a moment. We’re in our seats, we’re gonna see our show, this is great. That’s really magical.”
“This job is show business,” Hollingworth continues, “and sometimes in the role I’m in, it feels like more business than show. For one afternoon, in this setting, I could honestly say to myself that what I did mattered, and will matter for these families for some time to come.”
For a long-running show, an autism-friendly performance is irresistible. It guarantees a full house, positive press, and an audience eager to spend money on souvenirs. For actors who have been in a role for some time, the energy boost can be invaluable.
Before the curtain rose on “Elf,” Beth Leavel, the actress playing the stepmother to Jordan Gelber’s Buddy, did her make-up in her dressing room on the third floor of the Hirschfeld.
“We’ve been doing this show for a while,” said Leavel. “It’s nice to have an audience that may make us think a little differently. That’s great for an actor. It’s kind of a little energy gift for us.”
After each performance, TDF sends out surveys to the audience, the responses to which have given Lisa Carling a trove of stories that could bring a tear to the eye of even the most cynical Broadway veteran. After “The Lion King,” she heard from a mother whose autistic son “does not usually show affection.” During the performance, he held his sister’s hand for the first time. At the same show, there was “a little boy who doesn’t relate to anything, doesn’t want to be hugged, doesn’t hug toys, doesn’t want to be touched in any way,” said Carling. Quickly overwhelmed, he and his mother left shortly into Act I, taking a stuffed-animal Simba as a souvenir. On the train ride home, the boy wouldn’t let go of his new toy.
“And then there was a child, non-verbal, putting a blanket over his shoulders at home after the show,” Carling recalls, “saying over and over, ‘I’m the Lion King! I’m the Lion King!’ Again, the parent had tears in his eyes when he wrote to us.”
After intermission at “Elf,” not everyone returned to the theater for the second act. In the activity area, Sam Khichi sat with his young son Kiertan, waiting for the rest of their family to finish the play. Kiertan played with a pinscreen while Khichi explained that, though his son usually has trouble sitting still, he made it through more than an hour of “Elf” before getting too restless to continue.
“I think with him, it’s probably hard to follow the story, but I think he likes the lights and the sounds and being able to move,” Khichi said. “He likes the Christmas trees, the elves, and Santa. It’s his first play. Even kids with special needs love Santa.”
- A True Autism-Friendly Theater Experience (beyondautismawareness.wordpress.com)
- Old Globe sets ‘autism-friendly’ events (utsandiego.com)
Please click this link to view the video: http://www.wusa9.com/video/default.aspx?bctid=2129988973001
Doctors at Children’s National Medical Center are looking for families affected by autism, in the testing of a novel drug that targets the symptoms at its core. It is part of a nationwide program calledConnectMe.
Dr. Adelaide Robb, Principal Investigator for the ConnectMe research program at Children’s National Medical Center says, “It is looking at, for the first time, the core symptoms of autism. That means difficulty with social relatedness. How do you play with kids, how do you communicate with other kids?”
Dr. Robb says the medicine may also boost language skills, and cut down on repetitive behaviors and mannerisms that make it hard for children on the autism spectrum to communicate.
The program is for children between the ages of 6 to 12 and may last up to 52 weeks. For families who are interested in the DC area you can call the research study line at Children’s (202) 476-6067. For those outside of the metro area check the website for the nearest research site near you. www.clinicaltrials.gov.
- Special Edition – Aspergers (education.com)
Carson Natali never swam competitively before last year when he joined the Pinkerton Academy swim team as a manager. It was then he was started training in the pool twice each week, like the other swimmers.
At first, Natali, who has autism, took nearly two minutes to swim 50 meters.
But as the season progressed last winter, Pinkerton coach Ed Faszewski noticed much improvement in Natali’s technique. One particular difficult practice, Natali was swimming especially well.
Faszewski challenged Natali. He told the then-sophomore if he could swim the 50-meter freestyle in 55 seconds or less, then the team would be done with practice early.
“As you can imagine he was very apprehensive as he did not want to let his teammates down,” Faszewski explained.
Natali added: “I was kind of nervous. People were cheering for me that I would get it done. I was trying as hard as I can to get everyone out of practice.”
The cheering grew louder as Natali neared the finish.
“When he touched the wall with a 53 second time he had the biggest smile,” Faszewski said.
Natali has become quite an inspiration to his teammates and Faszewski. The 17-year-old Pinkerton junior has excelled in his year and a half with the team. He no longer is manager but instead trains every practice for the entire two hours and swims in meets. He has lowered his times significantly.
The 17-year-old junior swims 50 meters in :41 and the 100 freestyle in 1:32.
“(His teammates) see he’s put in the time and that if you put in the time and you have a good attitude, good things can happen,” Faszewski said. “It’s infectious because the other kids can see the accomplishments, the small steps that he’s taken for the big picture and know they can do the same.”
Natali’s mother Michele Natali explained her son was functioning at the level of a typical baby until 18 months.
“At 18 months old, he stopped doing everything,” Michele said. “He stopped speaking. He stopped forming words. And it wasn’t until we put him in special-ed pre-school and he was diagnosed at the age of 4 that his life started to come back basically.”
The cause of the autism is something the family is unaware of despite Natali being tested.
“It’s not who Carson is,” Michele said. “It’s an obstacle that he has to face on a daily basis.”
Natali said his parents told him about his autism either when he was 12 or 13.
“I didn’t know what it was at the time,” Natali said. “They told me that it’s like when my brain functions different. I think different from other people.”
Natali swims the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 200 medley freestyle relay.
“He’s always wanted to belong on something,” Michele said. “So being part of a sports team has helped him fit in with others his age. I think that’s what’s helped him the most. It has given him a sense of feeling he’s part of something. I think it gives him confidence.”
When Natali was around 4, he wanted no part of going in the water. But when he was 5, the family went on vacation to Myrtle Beach, staying at a hotel with a lazy river.
“He loved it and I told him he had to learn how to swim to go in the lazy river,” Michele said. “And he learned how to do the doggy paddle. That’s how he started. I think my father showed him how to do it once and he taught himself after that.”
Natali then loved to swim while growing up.
“He would just stay there (in pools) all day if he could,” Michele said, adding that her son swam recreationally and never took lessons to learn technique.
Natali did run cross country in middle school. But he was cut from the high school squad. Wanting to be a part of a team, he and his mom wondered what sport would fit him best.
“So a friend of my daughter’s who actually used to swim for (Faszewski) years before, she is the one who said Carson should try out for swimming,” Michele said.
All the rest is history. His improvement allowed him to swim in the final meet of last season.
“I’m pretty good with freestyle and my butterfly this year has improved,” Natali said. “My flip turns have really improved. My diving is getting better — my starts.”
Practicing every day for two hours isn’t easy.
“Of course it can be pretty exhausting day after day but it’s good exercise,” Natali said. “At least I’m not home being fat and lazy.”
Natali not only works hard in the pool but also in the classroom. His studies include practical math, U.S. History, meteorology, health and computer class.
“In some classes I always needed help because there’s some things I basically couldn’t do by myself and figure out by myself,” said Natali who has Aids in his class to help him with work whenever he is struggling with it. “I’m sure there’s people out there in the real world that have autism and they still need help.”
Natali has been on the honor roll every term at Pinkerton.
“He works very diligently,” Michele said. “He will come right home from swimming, take a shower, and then start his homework immediately. And he never has to be asked twice to do anything. … He is very consciousness of making sure everything is done ahead of time. If the deadline is Friday, he’ll do it by Wednesday.”
Natali also has held a job as a camp counselor at Chester Recreation each of the past two summer, helping mentor younger children.
The junior has set some other goals recently besides cutting swim times and doing well academically. He wants to learn to cook and plans to practice driving after swim season.
“He’s everything you want a swimmer to be,” Faszewski said. He’s on top of what his times are. He’s asking for things he can try to do to improve himself. And he’s not concerned about being in first place all the time.”
When Jonathan Izak looks at AutisMate, he only wishes something similar had existed when his brother was younger.
The iPad app, which Izak and colleagues have spent the last 18 months creating, is designed for autistic children — kids like Izak’s brother.
“I think it definitely would have helped him (with his) acquisition of language,” Izak said.
Some apps, such as Proloquo2go, replicate a staple of the autism field — the sentence builder that kids can use to build sentences using symbols and basic concepts such as “I want.” Such devices have long existed as standalone machines that can cost thousands of dollars. Other autism apps mimic the kinds of flash cards that can be used to visually represent things that one has trouble verbalizing.
AutisMate aims to handle those kinds of functions, but doesn’t stop there. One of its key features is designed to help kids even before they are able to piece together sentences that explain their desires. The scene-builder module uses pictures of the child’s own settings, such as their bedroom, work room, living room and kitchen.
Support for GPS allows the child to see one set of rooms, for example, at home and another set of scenes when at school.
The scene builder can also incorporate a variety of licensed videos to help with other settings, such as visits to the dentist or barber shop, as well as to help educate on concepts such as how to make it clear when they need a break.
Click this link to view the video: http://video.allthingsd.com/video/using-the-ipad-to-help-autistic-kids-learn/3D76C0B7-2EB7-473A-9C2C-FFAE818B299C
Another component breaks tasks up into different components and time frames, tying completing the activity to a reward, such as a cookie.
At $150, AutisMate is certainly pricier than the average app, but it’s in the same ballpark as Proloquo2go and other comprehensive software for those with special needs.
“It’s generally in the range of apps out there,” Izak said. That said, there are a range of other apps including free and low-cost apps for specific functions. There’s even an app,Autism Apps, that is a guide to other autism-related mobile apps.
Izak left his role at the University of Pennsylvania’s linguistics department to start work on AutisMate. Initially, he did the hands-on programming, but now he serves as CEO of the 10-person New York startup behind the app.
Eventually, Izak hopes to build his tiny company into a larger educational software firm.
“Really, the vision when I started this whole thing was pretty broad — to use modern technology to help those with a variety of special needs,” Izak said. “I started with autism because it was very close to home, and close to my heart.”
by Allison Ziering Walmark, via SheKnows.com
It can’t be easy being the sibling of a child with autism. But this little 6-year-old girl not only copes with the situation, she’s also a tremendous source of support. She’s the light of her brother’s life and for that, he’s so very thankful.
My Sister, My Hero
My children are 16 months apart. With Ethan, our firstborn, we tried — and had fun trying, darn it — for five months before we hit the jackpot. (You might want to steer clear of room 901 at the CuisinArt Resort in Anguilla.)
When Ethan was 6 months old, our daughter Eliza was conceived, literally on my 40th birthday. (Tacky and trite, yet entirely true.) Still nursing Ethan and with just one newly returned monthly cycle under my belt (figuratively, not literally), I was convinced — and, more importantly, convinced my husband — that there was no way “we” could get pregnant so quickly. Famous last words.
The perfect present
My pregnancy was confirmed on Mother’s Day of all times. Who knew a pregnancy test would be the perfect present? At that time of my second pregnancy, Ethan’s development was right on target, and yet, I cried, feeling guilty, that somehow a new baby would short-change the unspoken “Mommy and Ethan alone-time” contract I had with my son.
The birthday girl
Eliza turned 6 on January 23 (1-2-3). Ethan, as always, was by her side and sang and played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in her honor. While Ethan has full speech — and a plethora of four-letter words thanks to Eminem and Prince — he has one more gift he wants to give his sister, which as his mother, I have taken the liberty to elucidate, as he’s too busy composing his next big symphony. (As it happens, he’s entitled it “Penis Poop.” Sigh.)
A letter from Ethan
For my darling sister, on the occasion of her 6th birthday,
You saved me. Literally, you saved me. The day Mommy and Daddy brought you home from the hospital is the day I completely shut down. In essence, your arrival forced them to realize my development wasn’t where it should be, and they called Early Intervention services. Without you, who knows if they would have stopped listening to everyone who said I was “just being a boy, and boys develop at a slower pace.” (More famous last words.)
You might not know it, but from day one, you have been my advocate, my protector, my teacher, my rescuer, my hero. My baby sister by birth order… a giant presence in my world.
We have two different sets of strengths: I am more musical, you are more athletic. I like computers, you like books. I like pirates and soldiers, you like princesses and Barbie. We don’t have a conventional relationship. Yet together, we are one very powerful force. We very much complete each other. Yin and yang. We are forever a team. We are The E-Team.
Sometimes I know you resent the attention that my music and autism engender, and I want you to know that I understand. I hear you tell Mommy and Daddy that you want to be on television… that you want to be interviewed for the newspaper… that you want to be on YouTube. Eliza, you don’t need to be on TV for everyone to see how talented, special and unique you are. You are already a star. You are my star. You are Mommy and Daddy’s star, too.
You are beautiful, Eliza, and not just because you have blonde curly Shirley Temple hair and blue eyes that make people stop in their tracks. That’s just your outside. Your true beauty is what’s inside, for it’s your heart and mind that make everyone you meet fall in love with you.
“You are one of those rare people lit from within.”
You are kind, thoughtful and wise well beyond your years. You are one of those rare people lit from within. You are the first to help a friend who is hurt; with a friendly smile and a kind word, you soothe their physical or emotional pain. You are quick to forgive a slight. Rather than receive material birthday gifts from your friends, you asked that they bring in one grocery bag of non-perishable food items so that you might donate them to the local pantry to help the less fortunate. (Come to think of it, are you sure we share the same DNA?)
When your friends ask why I am “different,” you try to educate them and sweetly say, “My brother has autism and sometimes his brain gets confused.” It is you, Eliza, more than any other person in this world, who has helped make me more typical. Who has helped make me more present in this world. Who has made me want to engage with others. Who has given me a sense of self, a sense of place and a sense of humor. You make the real world look so fun and inviting, that you help lead me out of my mind’s darkness and into the light. I see that your world is a wonderful place, simply because you are in it, and that’s where I want to be, too.
Your patience knows no bounds. When I get angry, you take your hands and wrap them around my face and say, “It’s OK Ethan, you’ll be OK.” When I do something good, you wrap your hands around my face and say, “Great job, Ethan! I am so proud of you!” When I mispronounce a word or say something inappropriate, you wrap your hands around my face and say, “No, Ethan. Say it like this.” And, I love it all, because I know you want the best for me and your support comes from the heart. Hopefully you know how proud you make me, as evidenced by my front-row claps and cheers at your ballet and gymnastics recitals. When you dance to my piano music, you make my heart sing!
Your teachers are amazed at your depth of empathy and they tell Mommy and Daddy all the time. One day, your teacher asked your class, “What are you thankful for?” Many kids mentioned a television show or pet. You answered, “My brother.” On more than one occasion, you have left certain extra-curricular classes in tears, because while you got a sticker, the teacher didn’t have an extra sticker that you could give to me at home.
Sometimes, I do feel guilty that I’m not the average, run-of-the-mill “typical” brother. But, it comforts me to know that you will always have friends like Lulu and Raya and CiCi and Marin, sisters-in-spirit, with whom you share “brothers with differences.” Rest assured that all us “brothers with differences” love our sisters just as much as you love us. We just have different ways of expressing our love.
While I know a birthday is traditionally a time to receive gifts, you should know that Mommy and Daddy also gave me a gift. That gift arrived six years ago — and every day since — and that gift is you. Having you as my sister is truly the greatest gift — and the greatest therapy — of all. I love you, Eliza!
Your loving brother,
P.S. My room is still off limits to girls (except Mommy), so keep out.
Beautifully told. Brothers are the best!
A switch from the norm, but I watched this video and felt it needed to be shared!
My incredible friend Spencer Timme made this video about his relationship with his older brother Mitchel. The bond between these two is captured so incredibly in this video!
Watch it!!! 🙂