Five-Minute Time Out with the cast of Autism: The MusicalFive-Minute Time Out: Autism: The Musical

In spite of its dark subject matter, the HBO documentary Autism: The Musical strives to be a feel-good film. With a nod to 1970s television (Love, American Style type graphics and all), the filmmakers present six months of The Miracle Project, a theater program for autistic kids in Los Angeles. 

Elaine Hall, the creator of The Miracle Project, Miracle Project player Wyatt and his mom, Diane, sat down with Babble to talk about how theater expanded their idea of what was possible for kids living on the spectrum. Autism: The Musical airs tonight, March 25th, on HBO at 8 p.m. EST. – April Peveteaux

How was The Miracle Project conceived?

Elaine: I adopted Neal from Russia when he was twenty-three months old. At the time he was very sick. He had all kinds of liver toxicity, parasites. I spent a year helping him to get healthy but he still wasn’t developing typically. When he was almost three years old he got diagnosed with autism. I didn’t know from autism – this was twelve years ago. We started doing the traditional therapy and it didn’t really feel right to me. They were about forcing him to sit. If he would flap his hands they would push his hands down.

Is this still practiced?

Elaine: Maybe, but it didn’t feel right to me. I had just come back from a conference with Dr. Stanley Greenspan in Maryland and he had a whole different approach. It was a relationship-based approach of actually joining a child where they were and realizing that all of these kinds of behaviors actually had meanings and rather than negate it, follow their lead. So if Neal would spin around in circles we would turn it into “Ring Around the Rosie” and spin with him. If he would flap his hands I’d become a bird and start flapping with him and enter into his world. And gradually he started to come into our world. I have a theater company in Los Angeles and I started training my theater coaches in speech therapy, sensory integration and protocol. We would do this ten hours a day, seven days a week. It was intense but I didn’t want to have any moment that he would be in his own thing so we would always have somebody with him. And at the time Neal didn’t sleep either, so I didn’t sleep. When I look back on it, it was a miracle. It was all a miracle. After awhile Neal was able to go to school and it was time for me to go back to work. I didn’t know what to do, so I prayed about it and I asked, “What am I supposed to do?” The voice came real clear, “Teach kids with special needs acting and dance.”

How did all the parents work together? There were a few tense moments in the film.

Diane: You know, we’re all in such a similar boat. Elaine was clever about the way she did it. We would bring the kids in. Then she would shuffle us off into the parent room. It really kind of forced us to hear each other’s stories. And then what we did at the end – which I didn’t realize was deliberate – we came down to watch our kids. We were actually providing an audience for our kids. We were training them for the theater.