Bawling on the Couch: The Musical

January 4, 2010

Of course I’ve been known to bawl on the couch for a variety of reasons, but last night the tears were caused by the wrenching 2007 doc Autism: The Musical, which was playing on TVO. The movie is about arts educator Elaine Hall‘s Miracle Project, a theatre workshop for kids with autism and other special needs.

From an arts education perspective, the movie is instructive and inspiring. Hall is an incredible force and it’s a gift to see her work and connect with these kids. There are many moments where you can really sense the effect she is having on these children, and the breakthroughs she is helping them achieve. I don’t know if I’d ever have the strength to work with special needs kids (regular needs kids are challenging enough!), but I would love to learn more about Hall’s program and teaching methods. There’s plenty of classroom footage in the film, but I want more!

More importantly, Autism: The Musical humanizes autistic children in a way that nothing I’ve seen or read before on the subject ever has. The parents of the profiled kids (including Hall herself) are surprisingly candid about their personal struggles in coming to terms with their children’s autism, and the toll it’s taken on their marriages. Each of the kids will break your heart, but Wyatt and Lexi got to me the most. Wyatt, 10, is so smart and perceptive – aware of his difference from other kids, but helpless to do anything about it. Lexi, 14, has a beautiful singing voice – it was her rendition of Wicked‘s “I’m Not That Girl” that first spurred the bawling. She is a mimic, and often repeats back whatever is said to her, but she has trouble generating original language. In one scene, Lexi’s mother is trying to get her to type her responses to her mom’s questions, but Lexi only types a jumble of confused sentences. Her mother looks disappointed. And maybe this is projection, but so does Lexi – like deep down she does understand, she’s just trapped underneath her layers of autism.

Ultimately, the film is about the power of theatre to transform – literally. You see the progression of these kids from the first class, where they’re running around in circles with their hands over their ears because everything too loud and bright, to the final show, where they sing and act and face the stage lights and the applause with pride. Theatre is a communal art form, and it’s wonderful to see it used to empower kids who spend so much of their lives locked inside their own heads.

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