Daily Record: “Autism is no barrier for youth theater program in Morristown”
Children are breaking the barriers of autism by exploring the world of theater through a national program unfolding on the stage of the Mayo Performing Arts Center.
Elaine Hall, founder of the Miracle Project, said her award-winning international program has taken firm roots at MPAC, where education Director Cathy Roy spearheaded its New Jersey debut in 2017.
Programs such as the Miracle Project, which addresses the communication, socialization and behavioral issues common to autism, are essential in the Garden State, where a child-autism rate nearing 3 percent doubles the national average.
“When I was in New Jersey about a year and a half ago, training the [MPAC] staff, not only did we get a response for the class, but from the community, the educators, the professionals and lay leaders,” said Hall, an acting coach who developed the program for her own severely autistic son. “They were all so incredibly enthusiastic, and saying how necessary this program is for the New Jersey area.”
“I researched it a lot and it was exactly what we were looking for,” Roy said. “It aligned beautifully with our program at MPAC, and has changed our approach to everything we do.”
Hall and her staff from Los Angeles, California, arrived to Morristown in late 2016 to train Roy and her staff. That led to a pilot program of two classes and a performance in May 2017.
“I also visited their program in Los Angeles to get more insight into the program,” Roy said.
The Miracle Project was expanded at MPAC in 2018.
“We’re feeling more and more comfortable implementing it,” Roy said. “Each year, the class can take up to 10 students as well as 10 peer mentors. We’re looking to expand it carefully and with integrity. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about the quality of the program. We’ve doubled the classes this year from two to four per week. That’s what we can handle.”
“We’ve been deemed by peer review as helping to transform communication, socialization and behavior, which are the three component challenges of autism,” Hall said. “To have a modality that can address all those very critical issues is extremely important. This methodology has been recreated around the world.”
Graduates of the Miracle Project in Los Angeles are even finding new careers in show business, thanks in part to an entertainment-industry mandate to hire actors with autism to portray characters with autism.
“They’re getting gigs, they’re getting work, and these are kids who literally couldn’t stand up in front of their peers,” Hall said.
“It’s about making each student comfortable, really giving them a full experience,” Roy said. “It’s so wonderful to see the new friends they make, and see their self-esteem grow as the class moves along. I enjoy every second working with them.”
The MPAC staff was “able to grab the principle so immediately and put it into practice so efficiently,” Hall said. “They’re my flagship program.”
Integrating students without disabilities into the program adds an element of inclusiveness to the classes.
The students, ranging from 9 to young adult, followed their Miracle Project studies during Autism Awareness Month in April with a private performance this week for friends and family.
As the program expands, the Miracle Project is working to serve a wider audience by adding levels of instruction ranging from beginner to advance.
In addition to The Miracle Project, MPAC has featured art-gallery exhibits featuring work by students with special needs.