Unless a person personally knows someone with autism or Asperger's (and has experienced just what we can do), the first thing that doesn't jump to mind isn't talent, it's disability. It's what people with autism or Asperger's Syndrome can't do, not what they can. HBO's recent documentary Autism: The Musical, follows a mother's quest to challenge those pre-suppositions, both for her child and others like him.
The documentary chronicles the first production of the The Miracle Project, an L.A. based theater group for autistic children and their siblings. Elaine Hall (also known as Coach E), the founder of the Miracle Project, is an accomplished theater coach, and mother of a son who has autism.
As a person on the autistic spectrum myself, it's a little uncanny to watch these children who are so much like I was. But it makes it all the more impactful to understand the difference Coach E is making in these kids' lives. I find myself wishing that programs such as this one were available when I was a child.
Obviously very social (very much opposite of the average person with Asperger's/autism), Coach E demonstrates an incredibly intuitive and empathetic sense of how to interact with autistic children. Teachers who are used to dealing with "normal" kids, can often find autistic kids very difficult, because they don't understand why they act the way they do. When many teachers might brand one of these children as "just being difficult," Coach E seems to understand.
I can remember as a child having many difficulties with teachers who were used to "normal" kids, who had no idea how to deal with me - and my memories of being in their classes are miserable. With these teachers, you often felt like you couldn't win. It was like your hair was on fire, but they couldn't see it. When you finally couldn't stand it any more, you would run to try to put out the fire, and they would punish you for leaving your seat, and, to add insult to injury, accuse you of "just being difficult," or accuse you of exaggerating - "It can't hurt that bad."
I had several teachers of Coach E's caliber in my younger years, and I have to say, it makes all the difference. Perhaps not coincidentally, these teachers were often theater or arts teachers. I can tell you, that I credit these teachers with the majority of my successes in life.
A few years ago, I came across a report published by the National Autistic Society in the UK, which literally made me cry. The report cited some alarming statistics: according to their surveys, only 6% of adults on the autism spectrum were employed full time, and only 8% were living independently. Reading this brought home to me how incredibly blessed I was to have teachers and mentors in my life that knew how to reach me - to pull me out of my own world, and equip me with the life skills I needed to bust those statistics.
I can only be grateful for people like Coach E, who, through teaching the next generation, are helping the world to learn that kids with autism and Asperger's can be more than what most people assume. Of the children depicted in the documentary, her son, Neal, appears to have the greatest challenges. When others have urged her to institutionalize him, she fights to bring him out of his world into our world. This is what my teachers did for me, and I know that in his adulthood, he will be as grateful to her for it, as I am.
Autism: The Musical will make you cry. It will make you grateful. It will make you question what you think you know about ability, and about the world we live in. It will make you sad, and it will make you rejoice - and it will make you want to be a part of the world that Coach E is creating. It will make you want to believe.