by Debra Muzikar
I reluctantly accept the offer from Joanne Lara and Keri Bowers to attend a unique Autism Movement Therapy (AMT) workshop that combines parents and young adults on the autism spectrum in one room. I’m skeptical that Kevin, my 18-year old autistic son, will be able to last five hours on Saturday and Sunday, his two days off from school, at a workshop.
Last year Kevin and I attended a short one-hour acting workshop and he disrupted the class with a loud “BOR-ING!”
“If you participate and don’t disrupt the class, we’ll go to the CD store and you can buy a new CD,” I tell Kevin, “and if I hear the word BOR-ING even one time your dreams of a new CD will be history.”
Kevin in the car talks about jumping over cars and buildings in Los Angeles. I’m a little concerned that he is working himself up.
“Okay, mom,” Kevin drones in his deep, flat baritone. I’m relieved.
Upon entering the hotel I’m surrounded by little girls dressed in full-makeup and sparkling sequined costumes – some very provocative.
“Little Miss Sunshine?” I quip at the registration desk.
“It’s a little girl beauty pageant,” they confirm.
The irony of the two events in the same hotel doesn’t escape me.
As we walk into the AMT room, I breathe a sigh of relief as Joel Anderson, a peer of Kevin’s approaches us with genuine pleasure “Hi Kevin!”
We see many familiar faces and many new faces. As I grab a cup of tea, I see Kevin sitting with Dylan Aragon and Dani Bowman. Dani’s aunt Sandi snaps a picture. Kevin immediately feels a sense of belonging from his fellow participants and their parents.
Joanne starts each day by clapping a sequence and having the participants repeat the sequence, connecting with one another and, through this stimulus, awakening their brains.
Each of the young adults stands up front and introduces themselves. One participant, Neal, uses a communication device to speak. Later we’ll be impressed with Neal’s profound writing and the remarkable transformation that device has made in Neal’s young life.
“My name is Taylor Cross. I created the film Normal People Scare Me,” Taylor, Keri Bower’s son, stands up and assuredly announces.
“Your turn Kevin,” Joanne prompts.
Kevin gets up and introduces himself forgetting to say his name.
“I’m a painter,” Kevin says.
“His voice is so deep,” Dylan’s mom whispers to me.
The other young adults share their names and talents.
“Dancer, Representational Actor, Writer, Animator …”
I think, THIS is the room in the hotel with the real talent!
Kevin and the other young participants sit through a Powerpoint about the benefits of dance and music conducted by Autism Movement Therapy founder, Joanne Lara. She has had a twenty-year career as a dance teacher, then went back to school to receive her Special Education Master’s Degree. Joanne, a radiant woman, finds much satisfaction in spreading the word about dance, movement, music, art and autism.
“Not one of the kids left the room. The parents were more restless than the kids,” Joanne shares with me later.
The next day Dani Bowman recounts details from the Powerpoint.
“My broca is working well because I’m verbal and good with words,” Dani says.”My Wernicke area isn’t working well and that’s why I have difficuly associating what I hear with what’s going on.” [broca and Wernicke areas are parts of the brain.]
We warm up with the dance movements, most of the adults participate as well. Two of the experienced participants, Willow and Emily (both on the spectrum), lead the lines and show the others how to do the movements, which consist of forwards and backwards, sideways slides, turns and abrupt stops in a “freeze” position. The next day the newbies will be the leaders and show the others by example.
Then comes Kevin’s favorite – the drumming. Karen Howard conducts a lively drum circle.
Each of the students gets a chance to be the leader.
Keri Bowers wraps up the day with a presentation on young artist self-advocates coming together with their moms, dads, and therapists, creating a vision of moving forward in their careers. The aim of the presentation is to shift responsibility from the moms and dads to the young adults. She talks about marketing and building a resume.
Taylor Cross and Joel Anderson share their art work. Dylan Aragon, whose goal is to be a representational actor, shares a beautiful impromptu song, acapella. I’m so impressed, I ask if he will come to Mr. Musichead on March 23 and sing a song for us there.
“The need for this type of workshop is growing every day,” Keri shares later. “You can be a great painter, actor or writer but you need the business acumen to know how to market your wares. This workshop is meant to inspire young adults so they are not dependent the rest of their lives on others.”
At the end of the session, Neal Katz shares what he likes about the workshop using his communication device, “I really liked the dance because it got me out of my comfort zone.” He also shares “I like to write about having a loud silent good voice.”
The group takes a funny picture outside.
The next morning Dani Bowman talks about her upcoming schedule.
“I’m traveling to OCALI (the Ohio Center of Autism Low Incidence) June 23 to teach animation to autistic children,” Dani says, “and then I will be traveling around the country teaching animation with Joey Travolta.”
Dani proves herself to be a great role model for Kevin at the breakfast table sitting up straight, chewing her food with her mouth closed, using her napkin, and correcting Kevin’s manners in a nice way while asking him questions.
“Why don’t you talk, Kevin?” Dani asks in her signature flat voice.
“I don’t know,” he mumbles.
“I think Kevin is shy, Dani. Are you shy Kevin?” I ask.
“Yes!” Kevin says in a stronger voice. When Kevin was in preschool his speech therapist told me that some people may think Kevin doesn’t talk because of his autism but it’s really that he’s shy. I feel for Kevin as I was an extremely shy child myself.
As we leave the breakfast table, Dani grabs Kevin’s arm. Kevin is startled and pulls away.
“You don’t like people to touch you?” Dani asks.
“No, I like it!” Kevin answers.
Dani grabs Kevin’s hand and they walk to the AMT room together holding hands. I can tell Kevin for one of the first times in his life feels fully accepted by a peer. When he comes home he uploads the picture of Dani and him to his facebook page.
There were lots of little breakthroughs like this at the workshop. Another first – Kevin slept alone in his own room in the hotel. One mom reports that her daughter, who had never done this before, willingly had lunch at the same table with her peers.
When we rejoin the class, Joanne has plenty of fun exercises for us to participate in that use words, colors, movement, music and sounds.
“This workshop is built on a scaffold. We build on the previous exercise to create the next,” she tells us. She has prepared exercises that help students connect emotionally with the words to remember.
At the end of the workshop, in groups of four, we are acting out poems we have created together. This proves to be lots of fun and we all laugh.
Before the movie at the end of the session, Neal Katz gets up in front of the room and, using his electronic device, takes us all by surprise.
“I can not speak. For whatever reason, G _ d has intended for me to be mute. Many people might believe that I can not think, but despite their thinking, I can. What’s more is that I listen. A lot of people may stare at me, and when they do, I listen to their body movements and eye gaze. I listen to their ignorance. I listen because I have no choice but to take in the world in the way I can.
Listening is different from hearing. When you hear someone, you simply recognize that they are emoting sounds. When you listen to someone, you actually process what they are saying and internalize it.” …. (to view the entirety of Neal’s speech go here)
We then watch a movie titled Generation A that Joanne and Barry Shils produced. Many in the audience are in this wonderful film, which includes a lot of wisdom from Dr. Temple Grandin and Dr. Stephen Shore.
“Art saved my life,” Temple Grandin states in the movie.
At the end, the new AMT certified instructors stand for another group picture displaying their certificates.
Many of us left wishing for more of this type of community. Maybe we’ll find a place for a summer retreat.
We told Kevin how proud we were that he participated and he even admitted that he enjoyed the workshop. He earned his new CD!
This workshop was made possible by a grant from Autism Speaks.
Joanne Lara has an upcoming AMT workshop the last week in March. For more information visit www.autismmovementtherapy.org.