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.
I noticed in the film there was minimal talk of the causes or looking for a treatment. Is that on purpose?
Diane: Very much.
Elaine: Tricia [Regan], the director, actually speaks about how they decided not to have experts. First of all, the goal was to see our kids as kids. And also to get people to ask questions and be interested in our children enough that they will go out and seek the experts.
Diane: Because there are no answers and there are no cures and there’s no definite, “It’s the thimerosal.” Because even that’s debatable and that’s another movie. This was just, let’s go in and experience the joy and the abilities.
Wyatt, how is school?
You talked about bullying in the film.
Wyatt: There is one bully, yeah, because there is always one bully.
Diane, did theater help Wyatt talk about his experiences?
Diane: Wyatt would just repress, repress, repress. Now he is much more fluid. He feels safe telling things that are scary. “Wyatt would just repress, repress, repress. Now he is much more fluid.”
Elaine: Neal’s challenge is that because he’s non-verbal people think he’s not there. People talk about him in front of him. And I have to constantly remind them, you know, Neal’s here. And he’ll type things about the difference between a friend and a real friend. A real friend is someone who will listen to you.
Diane: Do you agree with that, Wyatt?
Wyatt: And a fake friend is someone that won’t listen.
Diane: What about on the playground at your old school? What did you used to feel there?
Wyatt: Same as Neal feels. Invisible. [To Elaine] Do they say bad things about him? He never told me that.
Elaine: It’s not like they say bad things. They talk as if he’s not there. Kids or grown-ups will talk about him in his presence. It would be like we’re talking about Wyatt as if you’re not even there. And what we tell people is that Neal may not speak but he’s a brilliant communicator. We know exactly what he wants and when he wants it.
There was a moment in the film I wanted to ask you about: the scene at Neal’s birthday party when he hurts a younger child. Is this something you experience a lot?
Elaine: That’s one of the hardest scenes for me in the film. What led up to it is the little boy had kind of been nudging the kids around and Neal saw the camera and went [explosive sound effect] and he has his moment. What’s challenging is when Neal is overwhelmed he may act out physically. And it used to be nonstop. We couldn’t have any pictures on the wall. He broke glass. He would break things constantly. However, that has diminished, I would say 99.9%.
What do you think about Richard’s [father to Adam, a Miracle Project kid] assessment that moms become so involved in the life of the autistic child that men leave?
Diane: I know the divorce rate is incredible, but I think [his comment] is specific to Rosanne [Adam’s mother]. She really devoted so much of her life . . . I think that is almost a mistake. I know it’s tempting. I didn’t have such challenges, but I think I had a little more leeway with Wyatt. I kept a balance. I felt like I had to be a working mom, and I have an older son. I think if you have other things, it doesn’t become the center.
That was a theme in this film.
“I hear ‘window of opportunity,’ now or never. But there is no window. There is an entire skyscraper.”
Elaine: Personally, I am guilty of being monomaniacal. The thing about autism is that you get this word that there is a small window of opportunity, that if you don’t do it now, before the child is four years old . . . And as a mom, I hear “window of opportunity,” now or never. I quit my job. I had a high paying professional job of coaching kids in film and TV. I quit everything, lived off my savings, focused 100% of my energy into creating this whole world around Neal. But there is no window. There is an entire skyscraper of windows that can last a lifetime, and our kids’ quality of life can constantly improve. Early intervention is phenomenal and important and necessary, but the brain will still develop. There are eighty-year-old people who learn to play the guitar, which means the brain is always developing.
Veatrice [Adam’s caretaker in the film] said about Adam, “If he wasn’t autistic . . . you can just imagine the possibilities.” Is this a familiar sentiment?
Wyatt: These are hard questions.
Diane: They really are. My firstborn has always excelled at everything. He’s a tennis star, thirtieth in the nation, honors. I guess the temptation is to compare. But I never have, because Wyatt has always been such a unique being and such an incredible voice and sunshine in our family. I’ve always honored who Wyatt is. He has beautiful qualities and they keep blossoming. He’s writing a book. Wyatt is going to be something amazing.
Wyatt: And I’m autistic. Why compare?
Diane: I guess you wonder how independent, and what kind of career:? [To Wyatt] What do you want to be?
Wyatt: A writer. See, I can be whatever I want to be. I like to write fiction.
Diane: He’s got a great imagination.
Wyatt: You don’t have to be a celebrity to be whoever you want to be.