Dancing with Autism

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After she adopted her son Neal, Elaine Hall created the Miracle Project, a program that uses musical theater to engage autistic children and teens.
(Provided)

During Passover of 1996, Elaine Hall traveled from Los Angeles to Russia to adopt her then 2-year-old son, Neal. A year later, Neal would be diagnosed with autism, and Hall would begin an odyssey that would change not only her life and Neal’s life, but also the lives of the many others they would touch.

Hall will be one of the keynote speakers at a special needs symposium at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Sunday, June 1. Marcella Franczkowski, assistant state superintendent for Maryland’s Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services, will also be featured.

“When Neal came to me, he was spinning around in circles, he didn’t answer to his name, didn’t make eye contact, and he was very, very sick,” said Hall, an actress and acting coach who has worked in the film and television industries. “He had liver toxicity. I spent the first year just getting him healthy.”

Approximately a year after his adoption, Neal was diagnosed with autism, and Hall began trying to learn all she could about the disability.

“The Internet was just starting, and there wasn’t as much information out there as there is now,” she said. “We started all kinds of traditional therapies, but nothing was working.”

Hall later brought her son to Maryland to see the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist and founder of the floortime approach of working with autistic children. (Floortime encourages parents to engage children at their level by getting on the floor to play).

“Dr. Greenspan put me on a path of relationship-based intervention. Instead of trying to get Neal to enter our world, he encouraged me to rally all my theater friends and have them join Neal’s world,” she said. “So if Neal was spinning around, we’d spin around with him and make it ‘Ring Around the Rosie.’ If he was staring at his hand, we would stare at our hands. Slowly, he emerged.”

Inspired by what she had witnessed, and deeply committed to spending time with her son, Hall quit her job and decided instead to share the techniques she had developed with other autistic children and their families. With a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles, Hall founded The Miracle Project Judaica in 2004, which provides a warm, inclusive Jewish environment where children and teens with autism and other special needs, as well as their typically developing siblings and peers, are encouraged to express themselves through music, dance, acting, stories and writing. Through The Miracle Project, participants develop and perform their own musical theater production.

In 2005, Hall was approached by a group of documentary filmmakers interested in making a film based on the project. While maintaining the Jewish Miracle Project, Hall also developed a secular version of the program that was featured in “Autism: The Musical!” first screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007. The documentary, directed by Tricia Regan, went on to win two Emmy Awards for HBO.

At first, said Hall, theaters didn’t want to show the film because of its title. “They thought it was making fun of autism and people with autism. We said, ‘Just watch it.’ Once they did, they saw how beautiful and sensitive it was,” she said, noting that it was short-listed for an Academy Award. “I want people not to be afraid of autism.”

When her son reached bar mitzvah age, Hall was determined that he should take part in the Jewish milestone. She created a multisensory b’nai mitzvah curriculum for Neal and other Jewish youngsters with special needs.

“Neal was the first bar mitzvah to use the curriculum,” Hall said. “He danced his haftorah.”

The program continues to be offered at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in Los Angeles.

Hall continued to build awareness and hope in her 2010 book “Now I See the Moon: A Mother, a Son, a Miracle.” The book was the official selection for World Autism Awareness Day in 2011 and was suggested reading for Jewish Disability Awareness Month in 2013.

Now 20, Neal works at a grocery store and an organic farm that is part of the Shalom Institute. Though still non-verbal, he communicates by using an electronic device. He is also a talented athlete.

At the symposium on June 1, Hall will deliver a talk about finding spirituality in parenting children with special needs.

“I’ll talk about redefining normal, becoming an activist and listening to the child who doesn’t speak,” she said. “God made all of us, and to shut out one person is to shut us all out. We will all have disabilities someday. We really have to be Abraham’s tent.”

Jen Erez, special needs coordinator of the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, said in addition to the two keynote speakers, the symposium will also include a resource fair and two workshop sessions. Workshop topics include managing relationships, planning for the future and understanding the social challenges of children and adolescents on the autism spectrum.

Erez said the program is appropriate for both parents and professionals.

To register, visit asoft4161.accri soft.com/baltimorejcc/index.php?src= forms&id=Special+Needs+Symposium.

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