The children in Elaine Hall’s musical theater camp, dubbed “The Miracle Project” aren’t your average pre-teen theater students. The Miracle Project is a musical theater camp solely for autistic children who, despite their many problems engaging with the world, delight and thrive in musical theater.
In just 22 weeks, the kids put together a musical performance, lovingly documented in Autism: The Musical . The logic behind such an endeavor—getting children who have a hard time focusing to memorize songs and dialogue—seems a bit dubious at first but Hall, who was inspired to start the camp because of her own autistic son Neal (adopted from Russia and still unable to communicate verbally), bases the project on the premise that theater, with its embrace of the strange and unexpected, could serve a real need for autistic kids.
As Hall describes it, theater professionals were the first to have real breakthroughs with Neal. “I started bringing in theater people who had no problem with things out of the ordinary and if Neal needed to do crazy things they would be crazy with him, with big affect and they would join his world until he emerged into our world.”
The documentary is about much more than the theatrical process, however, as it lets us into the personal stories of the children and perhaps more poignantly, those of their parents. What comes across is that autistic children are so different from one another, each having their own particular problems and charm.
There is Henry, son of Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills and Nash, who is obsessed with reptiles and prehistoric animals. Henry makes friends with Wyatt, a highly verbal young man who is well aware of the insults the other kids make about him at school. Wyatt, more than any of other kids, seems attuned to the way he and other autistic kids are seen, telling his mother about his special education class “100 percent of the kids in my class are retarded.” What he is most concerned about, however, are bullies “Mom have you ever heard a bully? Mom, they’re growing up and when bullies grow up they get meaner.”
Wyatt and Henry bond over being bullied at the Miracle Project where Hall has them play-act being bullied and eventually turns it into the song “Sensitive”. Wyatt says the acting makes him feel “spectacular”.
On the other hand, there is Adam, a precociously cute and short young boy with coke bottle glasses who has an incredibly hard time focusing on anything, prone to tantrums and freak-outs. Adam’s parents, though still together, are clearly buckling under the strain of taking care of him. They openly discuss that the month Adam got diagnosed Adam’s father began a 16-month affair. Roseanne, Adam’s mother believes “he definitely had the affair as a way to distance himself” while his father disagrees. “Roseanne is very resentful that I have a life beyond Adam … you see an awful lot of single moms of autistic kids…women overlook the fact that they may have been a factor (not the only factor) by being so monomaniacal or self-involved with their kid.” The tension is thick between them and the stress of dealing with an autistic child becomes apparent as Adam refuses to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner and Roseanne chases him around the room with a forkful of potatoes in hand.
In many ways the movie is less about the musical they are putting on and more closely focused on the challenges of raising an autistic child and its affects on relationships within that child’s family. Lexi, a 12-year-old with a lovely singing voice and a penchant for mimicking the voices of everyone around her, has parents whose relationship is as strained as Adam’s parents. Lexi’s parents break up during the course of the filmmaking. Director Tricia Regan was able to coax an extraordinary amount of intimacy from these parents, with Lexi’s mother whispering to the camera mere weeks before her husband moves out “We just went to a therapist… I think he’s done.”
It is no wonder that caring for autistic children puts an enormous amount of stress on the marriages of these parents—Elaine Hall ‘s own marriage fell apart when Neal was seven—but what worries all of them most is what will happen to their children without them around as their advocate. As Lexi’s mother says, “I can share with people who look at her funny and think she’s a weirdo and I can try and enlighten, but I can’t make them value her. I can’t make them respect her and think that she’s got the same rights that they do. I can’t make it happen.”
It is a bit easy and cliché to call Autism: The Musical a story about the transformative power of theater, but it’s hard to avoid the idea when you see the children and their parents at their big performance. They are genuinely proud of themselves and what they have accomplished – something that special needs children rarely get to experience. As Henry says to his beaming dad, “I felt really good on stage. It felt great.”