By Keri Bowers
Something magical occurs the moment houselights dim, stage lights rise, and curtains are drawn to reveal eager kids standing proudly, center stage. Excited and nervous all at once, the performers look out into the packed house spilling over with family, friends and promise.
Staff and volunteers have worked hard for many weeks to be in this very moment. We practiced, rehearsed, and developed contingency plans for support of potential elopements, stage fright and/or meltdowns. Yet on this brilliant day, no contingencies are necessary. Every child is where they are meant to be and ready to go.
Having produced a number of live theatrical events (The Art of Autism), my experience tells me it has something to do with the fact that after practice in a safe and nurturing environment, every child feels like a star. The energy and bright lights awaken focused intuition, and we see creativity flourish.
“Extra, Extra, read all about it. The Miracle Project is having a play!”
James skips across the stage, holding the faux “newspapers” we made during our weekly visual arts segment. Liza and Christina excitedly walk to meet James, chanting in tandem: “Oh yea? What’s it called?” Together all the kids on stage cry out…
And so the culmination of 22 weeks of The Miracle Project’s after school program facilitated at the HELP Group in Sherman Oaks, California begins and ends. For 22 weeks, staff, volunteers, and kids with special needs meet in two separate groups (based on age and level of support needed) to enjoy organized play, music, drama, movement, improvisation, art, friendship, and directed social integration.
NAME AND A MOVEMENT!
Each week we start out in a circle of support, beginning with “Name and a movement…”
“My name is Amanda!” Amanda claps her hands and raises them high above her head in a circular motion. The group follows her lead. Everyone repeats: “Amanda!” We all take turns with our own name, and improvise our own special hand or body movement.
I look about the room, watching as the wheels turn in the kids’ heads as they pause to search their brains to find and create just the right movement to go along with their name. Improvisation goes a long way to developing neuro-hemispheric brain connections. It is important – if not critical – to exercise the mind to improve spontaneous actions and/or words.
We move through circle time, engaging in a variety of other warm-up activities, and then transition to art where we create quick and easy recycled art projects. Over 22 weeks, we focus on making props for the final production of “Shine,” and create other projects related to upcoming holidays. Every art project has a theme and a lesson at its core.
GET YOUR YA YA ‘s ON!
After art, we get our “ya ya’s” on with gross motor movement and dance exercises. Back and forth across the room we move, prance, roll, skip, crawl and jump. Some of the movements are constructed. Others are improvised. There are many ways that physical movement benefits the kids – both individually and as a group.
Whole body movements support the development of brain connectivity, gross and fine motor skills, mind/body/spirit integration, active listening, following directions, self-regulation, self-esteem, individual success, participation and group support.
Each day concludes with learning, memorizing and singing the songs we will perform in the final performance. Written by many long-time Miracle Project staff members and volunteers, these songs are catchy, timely, purposeful and fun. They send positive messages of hope, strength and encouragement to both the kids that sing them, and the audiences that hear them. Over time, some of the kids will take on solos for the final production.
ON ANY GIVEN DAY…
During our 22 weeks together, it is not uncommon to look over and see a volunteer or staff member wiping tears from their eyes as we watch the kids become more animated, take bigger risks in self-expression, grow in self-esteem, and take on leadership roles. We’d surely fill a glass to the brim with tears those times a non-verbal child sings a song aloud – and solo!
If you have not experienced it before, it is glorious to witness a non-verbal child sing words they are otherwise unable to speak. We see that speech over singing (both production and listening tasks) occurs in the left temporal lobe, whereas singing over speech (listening tasks only) occurs in the right temporal lobe. This is one of the reasons I like to sing social stories as opposed to using spoken words. Music and song revives our cellular memory – as experienced by us all when we hear a song, say 20 years later, and it takes us (vividly) back to a particular place and time.
FINDING OUR RHYTHMS
Week after week, we watch many of the kids become cheerleaders for their peers who are more challenged by our weekly routines. A natural balance occurs between those who find satisfaction in being helpers, and those who thrive on support. We see each individual (staff and volunteers included) become more empowered by the collective support of the group. This is accomplished by finding our own unique rhythm and manner of expression and sharing it with the group.
And yet, with all of the amazing successes that unfold as we bond and grow together, each week at the Miracle Project we are also presented with the challenges, difficulties and stressors of dealing with undesired behaviors.
We experience meltdowns, elopements, stresses, aggression, and a number of other challenging behaviors. It would not be realistic to paint a “picture perfect” idea of a 22 week program without sharing this aspect of reality.
OUR CORE VALUE
Our core value is to work with what we’ve got while discovering and uncovering strategies and possibilities beyond all appearances. We meet the challenge of all struggles by exploring strategies and tools that support each individual – and the group as a whole. Let’s be real. Life is life and it comes with challenges. When autism and other special needs come into our lives we are left with a choice. Do we meet the challenge or become bitter? It is often a long road to making such serious choices which will ultimately define ours and our child’s experience.
So what do we do when we are stumped? Confounded? Lost? Or when a challenge appears to be insurmountable? If we choose to progress, we get up, suit up, and keep at it. We look to others to support us. We experiment. If one strategy does not work, we try another. In between we breathe :>) Hopefully, we do not give-up one minute before the miracle.
WITNESSING A MIRACLE…
During our first 3 weeks, 9-year old Derek, fell to the floor – each session – in utter distress. Though he had language, he was not able to access words to convey what was upsetting him. The entire group felt his angst. Try and try as we did to provide positive reinforcements and encouragement, we had minimal success those first 3 weeks.
All behaviors are a form of communication. Derek was telling us something – we just did not yet know what it was. Perhaps the lights were too bright. Maybe the dancing was too boisterous, or the noise too loud.; It would take patience and perseverance before we had a breakthrough.
DRUM ME A BEAT…
By the 4th week, I was “feeling” Derek’s pain so profoundly, I could not concentrate on the group as a whole. Sitting in the opening circle, I was restless and ill-focused. Derek was outside in the hall sobbing; each loud cry rattling my heart. And then, I spied them. Bongo drums across the room.
Without much thought – and no game plan, per se – I got up, picked up the drums and walked out into the hallway where Derek was sitting. I had used drums in many of the programs I facilitated over the years, and found amazing successes. On automatic pilot, intuition – not my brain – guided me. Getting down on my knees, eye-level to him I said:
“Hi Derek. My name is Ker-i.”
I hit 7 soft beats of each syllable on the drum in tandem with my chanting.
“I see you are sad.”
I hit 5 beats to each syllable.
Surprised by my presence, (often an element of surprise will jolt us “out” of a focused behavior,) Derek’s eyes dashed from the drum to my eyes and back to the drum. He responded by pounding aggressively on the drums.
“Gentle… gentle.” I chanted…
“We beat the drums soft-ly… like this…”
I demonstrated 8 soft but firm taps. I repeated…
“We beat the drums soft-ly.”
I demonstrated 6 soft taps. Now, completely engaged and looking wide-eyed into my eyes, Derek repeated 6 soft taps.
“Good, Derek, that’s it.” In tandem with 4 taps.
“Your turn.” Derek hit the drum with 4 soft taps.
“I like the way you do that!” I said with 7 taps
“Can you repeat after me? Ready?” I paused…
“My name is Derek.”
OUR BODIES FEEL THE BEATS, AND MEMORIZE THE COUNT
With perfect precision, and a smile on his face, he repeated – in words and beats with exact duplication:
“My name is Derek.”
I couldn’t help but laugh aloud. “I got him!” I thought to myself.
He is with me.
“Good, good. That’s really nice drumming, Derek. I really like that!”
We continued to count, taking turns leading and following the drum beats. His eyes now dry, Derek continued to smile as I prompted, “…One finger” tap, tap, tap. “Two fingers.” tap, tap, tap. “Your turn, Derek. Show me what to do.”
He led, and I followed. Then, I surprised myself when I said “The chicken ate the cat!” Derek burst out in laughter. In that moment, I was able to connect with his relative level of cognition. We had found a common ground – our funny bones.
WHEN YOU ARE READY…
“Okay Derek, when you are ready, please come join us in the music room.”
I walked toward the door. Blancing behind me, I saw that Derek was only two steps behind. When we entered the room, mouths literally dropped. What the heck? Everyone looked in our direction. I could “hear” them wondering how he went from cries to smiles. Later, I would explain the process. We would use that process many times in the coming weeks with Derek and others. We had found a shiny “carrot.”
The next day, we received a letter from Derek’s mother: (paraphrased)
“I do not know what happened today, but on the drive home, Derek shared about Halloween and loving music. He has never engaged in back and forth conversation before. In fact he has never talked beyond one or two words, with limited exchanges. I had to turn my head, look in the backseat, and make sure it was my kid doing the talking. Today we experienced our first miracle. Thank you, thank you.”
Derek went on to participate – very successfully – throughout the remaining weeks of the program. He would also have brilliant “solo” moments in the final production.
A COLORFUL – BUT NOT SINGULAR EXAMPLE…
This was, perhaps the most colorful example of a “miracle” during our 22 weeks together, but it did not outshine the multitudes of other wondrous things we witnessed. There was Rose – echolalic and selective in speech – who one day surprised us by using her words to tell us she would not leave Mike who was frightened to perform on stage in front of people. “I want to stay with Mike!” she demanded. We supported her to stay with Mike in the green room until he was able to join us.
Khloe, Max, and Tina, who also had limited language, blew us away by singing solos in the finale. Lucy – a teen who acted “too cool for school,” became a role model for the younger kids during art time. On and on, we witnessed brilliance every week.
And then, in the end, there was “Shine.” That final, magical performance where every kid shined, and everyone in the audience cried.
WOW! A TASTY MIRACLE…
If a miracle was something tangible, like, for example, the taste left in my mouth after a scrumptious meal, I’d say that 22 weeks at the Miracle Project left one of the sweetest memories of my life on my palate. I have no doubt, everyone involved would agree.
Keri Bowers, filmmaker, advocate, speaker, and mother of a 24 year old son with autism is the founder of Normal Films, and co-founder of the Art of Autism. She works as art director for The Miracle Project, Autism Movement Therapy, The Friendship Circle (Agoura Hills,) and other non-profits on a consulting basis. She facilitates monthly transitions groups and siblings workshops in California. Keri is a featured co-contributor with Joanne Lara to Autism Asperger’s Digest Magazine. Email her at email@example.com