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Autism: The Musical

04/14/2008

On Saturday, April 19, 2008, the VSA Arts, the Lower Delaware Autism Foundation, and the Rehoboth Beach Film Society will present "Autism: The Musical," a HBO documentary.

The three organizations have rallied around this one movie because showing it serves all three of their purposes. Tersely stated, the movie is about the Miracle Project, a Los Angeles program that teaches autistic children theater acting and music.

For the RBFS, it spotlights a great piece of filmmaking that is independent and different from the mainstream fare. For VSA Art, it falls in line with their mission to promote arts for people with disabilities. This movie is nothing, if not a total demonstration, of that.

For Melissa Martin, the executive director of the LDAF, a nonprofit that is dedicated to helping families of autism and providing information, it's a perfect way for LDAF to open the community's eyes to what autism is and how it affects people.

Watching the movie, I learned a troubling statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1980, one in every 10,000 people got diagnosed with autism, while, today, it's increased to one in 150. That represents millions of people just in the United States with this disorder, a disorder that is inexplicable and ultimately incurable.

Yet, even with all those numbers, there is a general feeling that not many people know about autism, and more importantly, because of this, those that suffer from it don't get the help they need.

Melissa Martin of LDAF said that at the University of Pennsylvania, medical students, and those in the physicians department, had to go to special conferences in order to learn about autism. Martin attended one of these conferences and participants told her that autism hadn't even been in their curriculum.

So, if doctors at that Ivy League medical school weren't getting trained, or enough information about autism, then what is the general population "not" getting?

April is Autism Awareness Month, and April 2 is National Autism Day. In cooperation, TV networks like CNN have aired spots to spread the word, and help enlighten, but there was an article in the New York Post, which said, when most people think about autism, they think about Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" (1988).

Sadly, Melissa Martin of LDAF said that when it comes to Hollywood films that tackle autism, most of the movies like "Rain Man" leave the audience with a very limited or one-dimensional view of the disorder. Therefore, when Martin was first approached with the idea of showing a movie about autism, I can imagine that there might have been some apprehension. She may have even been a tad skeptical about supporting one of those limited-view films.

Martin did approve of "Autism: The Musical." Wendi Dennis of RBFS suggested it, but from what I'm told, it wasn't her first choice.

This documentary was more like her third. Dennis offered up two other movies to VSA and to LDAF who more or less rejected them because those other two leaned more toward that "Rain Man" limited Autism stereotype, that now 20-year-old stereotype.

The problem with those stereotypes is that while many of them are based in truth, they reduce something so large and complicated into something so small and basic, something that is broad and varied into something that is essentially singular.

But, autism can't be reduced to something singular. Autism is unique in that it's not just one thing. It's a spectrum. It's a rainbow, as Martin of LDAF describes. While there are commonalities, like deficits in communication and social skills, as well as atypical behaviors, those atypical behaviors could be anything.

Martin says that autism manifests itself differently and uniquely with each person, and watching a film like "Rain Man" doesn't do Autism justice, or rather it doesn't paint you a complete portrait. What Martin says she likes about "Autism: The Musical," unlike the others, is that this documentary actually shows a diversity, not just one note but a veritable symphony of what autism is.

In the movie, we learn that the Miracle Project involves a dozen or so autistic children. Each gets to sing and dance, or perform short acting skits, which get combined in one show. Filmmaker Tricia Regan concentrates, however, on five of those kids and their parents' story.

The children range in age from 8 to 14. In the case of some of them, their parents recorded home movies, videos that chart when their kids started exhibiting symptoms. From the others, we get very heartfelt testimonials from the mothers of the signs they first noticed.

One mother named Hillary has a daughter named Lexi, whose chief autistic behavior is echolalia, or the condition of repeating everything she hears but not able to form many original thoughts. Hillary talks about not being able to get a proper diagnosis until her daughter was 2 or 3.

Despite the fact that Lexi is now a teenager, she still has the mind of a 3-year-old, a state from which she will never be able to fully rise. Lexi's father, Joe, worries that they're not going to be able to take care of her forever. His nightmare in fact is that he and Hillary will die and Lexi will have to go into a shelter where he says she'll be the "perfect victim."

Anybody could do anything to her, from physical to sexual assault, and Lexi wouldn't know how to verbalize it or fight it. On the other hand, Elaine, who runs the Miracle Project, also has an autistic child. His name is Neal. He's 9, and is prone to violent tantrums and outbursts. Yet, he's completely mute. Neal doesn't speak.

While Hillary and Joe are concerned Lexi might become the victim of abuse, Elaine and her husband Jeff are concerned Neal might also become an abuser. And, that's just a taste of the gambit these families of autism go through. And, those are just the long-term anxieties. There are day-to-day concerns that the documentary also addresses.

It becomes a daily struggle, one from which you can never take a break. As a matter of fact, it can be a life inhibiting experience. The documentary is very frank and open about the fact that many parents in these circumstances have been led to divorce, and that there are a lot of single moms of autism. Martin said the statistics are in the 80th percentile.

But, the film is not all depressing. Even though there are moments when the movie feels like AA, Autism Anonymous, it's not all just one story after another of hardship. At one point, Hillary says, about her daughter, Lexi, "She's different, not wrong." As you watch the movie, where at first all you think about are the kids' disabilities, after a brief while, that all melts away.

You start to hear these kids and understand them. Martin of LDAF stresses that it is important to "recognize how similar we are," and watching this movie, the similarities rather than the differences of these autistic kids begin to shine.

In the movie, Hillary cries about people not accepting or not valuing her daughter because of her condition. Some of the autistic kids confess to being bullied, being treated like babies or retards. A lot of that comes from ignorance or perhaps fear.

People think autistic kids are less than, that they can't do what normal people do. However, another mother in the Miracle Project, named Rosanne, whose biracial son called Adam, says, "There's nothing he can't do. I just have to find a way to teach it to him."

What you see the Miracle Project do, if nothing else, is show that these kids can do things, and can accomplish a lot, if given half the chance. Melissa Martin of LDAF talks about instead of people focusing on their disabilities, we should really try to "capitalize on their abilities."

Wendi Dennis of RBFS says the documentary, in addition to its diversity in depiction of Autism, shows the reality of these families' situations. It doesn't shirk from anything. It shows their ups and downs. She says it will be an educational piece, as well as a wholly entertaining one. She says she's seen a ton of documentaries that she's somewhat jaded to them, but this one was able to hold her attention.

The one thing Melissa Martin would like to make clear, though, is that the musical theater displayed in this movie is not meant to be seen as therapy. There are plenty of therapeutic techniques that can help autistic children develop skills, and an inclusive environment where they can make friends is beneficial. But, Martin re-iterates it's not a panacea for all autistic people. She says that it's merely a great opportunity.

And, that's what the Lower Delaware Autism Foundation is all about. Through its fundraisers and in conjunction with the Sussex Consortium, a nationally ranked school for special needs children, in one of only a few states with a statewide autism program, LDAF seeks to create opportunities, enriching ones for hundreds of families suffering in Delaware who need life support for their autistic children, such as job training, etc.

The idea is to help people dealing with this to transition their autistic children into somewhat, if not fully, independent and functional human beings, and showing the world that autistic people can be normal, whatever that may be. This film goes to the heart of that.

AUTISM: THE MUSICAL
Saturday, April 19, 2008 at 7 p.m.
Milton Theater, 110 Union Street, Milton, DE
Tickets $5 at door or by calling (302) 645-9095

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