SENSE Theatre, Makes Sense to Me
This guest post is by Autism Speaks Blog contributor Kristen Byrne. Kristen is the proud mom of two sons with autism. She is also one of the founding co-chairs of the Sacramento Walk Now for Autism Speaks event.
Just over a year ago I’d heard that Dr. Blythe Corbett, a spunky, brilliant, and caring doctor at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute was developing a program to put children with autism on stage in a musical to perform in front of a live audience. She not only put children with autism on stage in a musical in front of 6 packed theatre houses, she gave our children a unique and precious experience I’m quite certain they’ll remember fondly forever.
I have twin boys who have autism. When they were first diagnosed at age 3 ½, they were non-verbal, engaged in self stimulating and self injurious behaviors, they had significant fine motor skill delays as well as social & cognitive delays. If anyone had said, your kids would be performing in a musical on stage in front of a live audience; I would have thought they were being cruel.
With much apprehension; we completed all of the paperwork for our sons to participate in SENSE Theatre’s first production, Jungle Book Kids in March 2009. We took home the Cortisol sampling kits for the research piece of the project Dr. Corbett was simultaneously conducting, and the boys both endured blood draws all before the first day of rehearsals and I kept wondering – will this be worth it?
At the start of the project we could not comprehend that anyone could have the patience and understanding to handle the constant struggle Ethan & Devan would impart. We doubted that we’d make it very far in the project and while we were cautiously optimistic, we never prepared ourselves for the outcome of success.
We entered the theatre and immediately the boys dart off into opposite directions. One bee lined to the stage and the other to the back of the house zooming up the stairs two by two. It was a good thing my husband & I decided to go together. They were up and around, down the halls, into the green room, climbing on sets, hanging on the curtains in the wings and opening emergency door exits.
Needless to say, we were exhausted. When we got home that night we got the boys to collect their spit in these tiny vials provided by the SENSE lab, and recorded the events of the day in the log for future researchers to analyze. Feeling somewhat defeated, I briefly contemplated calling Dr. Corbett that night to tell her we quit. However, this thought quickly vanished; we are not quitters and surely the next rehearsal would be better. While the boys did not appear to have had a good time, I caught them both singing one of the Jungle Book songs in bed, “Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife!” And that was it for me – I would not feel tired, I would not complain, I would not worry – I would dutifully drive them 45 miles to rehearsals for two hours and happily drive another 45 miles home two or three times per week to see them perform live on stage in front of six packed theatre houses.
We entered the theatre as before and unlike the times before both boys sought out their SENSE buddies with no prompting required. Progress already! The SENSE buddies were neuro-typical cast members who volunteered to help a child with autism in the cast. Ethan would ask for Eric, Chris & Turner by name and each time he saw them at rehearsals, a huge grin lined his face. Devan would ask for Camilla, Autumn, & Turner and they were all there each day with open minds, open hearts and open arms.
The SENSE buddies performed roles while being video recorded. The videos were uploaded to a website for us to stream at home so the boys could rehearse their parts throughout the week. These videos were ingenious! We’d just click play and the boys would come running into the den and start singing and acting without us having to convince them to rehearse.
Tech Week, Three Months Later
iPhones, V-tech games, M&Ms, gummy bears, Star Wars figures, token charts, squishy stress balls, books, play dough, and puzzles covered the green room. The parents & the SENSE buddies retreated to the green room with the kids after each song to break and regroup. The costumes took some getting used to, working out the kinks of the bumble-bee head dress, the bulky feeling of the stripped fabric draped over head, the wolf head that wouldn’t stay on top of Devan’s head, and the Kaa snake puppet resting on his back. It seemed that the show was coming together just in time for opening night.
Stay tuned to see how the Byrne family and SENSE Theatre’s Jungle Book production made out!