Monday, August 31, 2009

Kids on the autism spectrum take to the stage in California program

From the San Diego Union-Tribune. In the picture, Sandy Redmon instructed (from left) Stephanie Orozco, Sean Fogarty, Kristen Smith and Jason Mullins.

ENCINITAS, Calif. — It was Reid Moriarty's first time attending the Positive Action Community Theatre. The tousle-haired teen reluctantly followed his mother into the bare room with a wall of mirrors, where a dozen youngsters met last month to rehearse the play “Border Skirmish, Just Another Manic Day at Magic Manor.”

The Encinitas-based drama workshop, manned by parents and theater professionals, is called an inclusion program because it includes teens and youngsters who fall within the autism spectrum.

Students with autism and those without benefited in ways they never imagined.
At first, Reid, 15, ignored anyone who approached him and stated flatly, “I don't want to talk, Mom.”

A teacher welcomed him to the workshop and asked him to read the house rules.
“I'll let you do that,” Reid said.

In most circumstances, Reid's response might trigger snickering or surprise, but here, unorthodox behavior is taken in stride.

“It's a textbook answer,” said Reid's mother, Andrea Moriarty. “Reid takes everything literally and doesn't pick up on social cues. The thing that is great about this program is that there are typical peers, as well as five kids on the spectrum.

“When kids are high-functioning enough to mimic behavior, they need appropriate models, and that's what makes this program hugely valuable.”

Later that day, Reid invited another student to join him in an acting exercise, and when he was chosen to play a part, he read his lines with confidence.

Moriarty said reading a script gave her son specific directions on what to say, and that empowered him. He also had the support of the typical teens, who clapped enthusiastically after his accomplishments. The group will perform “Border Skirmish, Just Another Manic Day at Magic Manor” tomorrow at the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life fundraiser at San Dieguito Academy.

Parents of autistic children struggle to find social activities that will accommodate their kids. Recent state budget cuts have eliminated all social and recreational activities supported by 21 California Regional Centers, an organization that provides services for individuals with developmental disabilities.

“That will have a huge impact on our clients,” said Carlos Flores, executive director of San Diego Regional Center, which serves about 500 youngsters with developmental disabilities.

“People think social recreation is trivial, but social interaction is crucial. Many kids grow up in segregated programs; in many ways they are isolated from the things kids do. And socialization is not something a parent can teach a child. Those skills are learned through experience.”

The most recent statistics provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that autism is a common neurological disorder, affecting an estimated one in 150 children.

The term “spectrum” refers to the condition's wide range of abilities, symptoms and behaviors. A youngster can be nonverbal or a nonstop talker. He or she might be a good visual learner or avoid eye contact completely.

When Kathryn Campion and theater professional William Simonson co-founded the Positive Action Community Theatre last year, they didn't intend it to be an inclusion program.

Campion had a decade of nonprofit experience, and the plan was to launch a community theater project that served low-income children.

Then, a parent enrolled her 7-year-old autistic son, who performed well in a skit.
“It was so touching, and I thought, ‘There is something happening here and it's making a difference,’ ” Campion said. “The parent was so happy that she wasn't getting a door slammed in her face. Then she told a friend with an autistic child, and that person told a friend.”

Campion's theater program became a Kids Included Together affiliate. KIT is a San Diego-based nonprofit that supports recreational inclusion programs with on-site training.

After establishing a theater group for children of elementary school age, Campion began an eight-week teen program and solicited help from her daughter, Kristen, a senior at La Costa Canyon High School.

Kristen needed community-service hours for graduation, but she also discovered that she enjoyed herself and invited some of her friends to participate.

“I hadn't been with kids like that before,” Kristen said. “But they seemed more like me than I expected. It was nice interacting; they were sweet and fun to be with.”