Autism: The Musical
by Laura Tucker
Premieres Tuesday, March 25, on HBO
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When I first heard what Autism: The Musical was all about, I knew I had to see it. As a martial arts instructor, we recently had a boy with autism in our classes, and it was interesting to find ways to reach him, and even more interesting when I would finally find a small connection. In addition, I also have a child with a disability, and although she has a learning disability, I see similar things in the ways other people don’t understand, and an overall need in both to want to feel safe.
A single mother of a son of autism, Tricia Regan, decided to do something big to help the cause. She started The Miracle Program, with the intention of developing a musical theatre program that would help the children connect with each other and themselves the only ways they knew how. She brought them all together and talked with them and observed as well, and let them come up with their own ideas. She then took these to a scriptwriter to write the final piece that they practiced for months to be able to perform. Even Regan told the other parents she had no idea what was going to happen and how well it was going to work. Yet, with nowhere else to turn, these parents trusted her.
It was the parents that I was finding huge connections with of my own. In some ways, I understood their frustrations and fears for themselves and their children. Through interviews that are conducted throughout the children’s time working on the musical, we see many family triumphs and tragedies, as these brave parents let us into their lives. After we watched Regan and her son, Neil, celebrating Hanukkah alone, she started dating again for the first time, and consequently, her new boyfriend’s family didn’t understand why Neil couldn’t behave himself at the dinner table.
Not all of the parents’ stories end up well, as we hear from one mother that admits to her earlier struggles to deal with having this in her life, and throughout the time of filming, her husband left the family, apparently not able to deal with it anymore. Another woman connects her husband’s infidelity to not being able to deal with his son’s autism, but he disputes the connection. One mother talks of going from doctor to doctor, trying to find help. I did the same thing within the school system, looking for someone to help me figure out how to help my daughter. In addition, one of the parents featured is a celebrity dealing with all the same things the other parents are.
It’s the children that are the stars in this production, though. Of all the children entered in the program, this film focuses on four, other than Neil. Lexi is a the oldest and has a beautiful solo in the program, although at school she is learning to do basic living functions, like doing the dishes. Adam is a cellist, and gets one-on-one help at school, like my daughter now does. His mother worries about him going to middle school and losing that, but wants him to stay in general education, just like I do. I lost that battle, but I do understand why it’s the best for her.
Wyatt seems to be a higher functioning child and his biggest worries are on the bullies at school. He talks in graphic detail of the bad things they do and say to him. While these collection of five students include all different levels of autism, there is also one child that has Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s a higher functioning version of autism, which leaves him gifted in his knowledge of reptiles and dinosaurs. His whole life revolves around them.
It was hard at times for me to watch this, both connecting back to my family’s situation and just watching the struggles of these kids and their families as well. Yet, it was enlightening as well, as they reached the pinnacle of the film, that being the night of the big show, and the success all these parents and children finally feel after a lifetime of struggles.
My daughter asked me to turn this movie off at the beginning, saying it made her cry, but I’m not sure how deeply she was connecting to it, as she has a hard time explaining her thoughts. I made the connection early on for her, saying these kids also have a disability, but theirs is much different than hers. We talked about the many differences throughout, and also the similarities, being that she and all of these kids were born with these disabilities and couldn’t do anything to change this about themselves. It’s who they are.
She was of limited words by the end of the film, so I’m not sure how she felt in the end, but it definitely kept her interested throughout. I know how I felt, and that was a feeling of being enriched for seeing it. After a few weeks of worrying more than usual about my daughter, it was somewhat comforting to see other families dealing with similar issues. I suspect that’s what the families involved in the project feel as well, and that’s what makes everything about The Miracle Program and Autism: The Musical worthwhile.
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