Elaine first noticed something was different about her son, Neal, when he was two: he didn't sleep, he threw tantrums, he didn't speak. But she chalked it up to his having spent 23 months in a Russian orphanage before she adopted him and brought him to California.
Hillary's daughter, Lexi, developed typically until she was 21 months, when Hillary "started seeing some things that were troubling" about her: she danced in circles and stopped responding to her name.
Roseanne's son Adam was diagnosed when he was three, the same month his father embarked on an affair because his wife was so "monomaniacal" about attending to their son's special needs.
Dianne wanted to hire a lawyer to help her son, Wyatt, get extra support in public middle school, but at $430/hour, realized she had to continue to be her son's only advocate.
Elaine, Hillary, Roseanne and Dianne are some of the mothers of autistic children we meet in the stunning new documentary, Autism: The Musical (Tricia Regan, 2007). Elaine brings them together at The Miracle Project, a theater and movement program she has founded to help her son Neal and other autistic kids learn to communicate their feelings and to control their impulses, but most of all, "to have a great time, [to] feel great." Elaine finds the families through friends and acquaintances, yet the parents are skeptical at first that her project will benefit their children, doubtful that she can even keep them all in the same room. The camera pans across them seated with their arms crossed over their chests, their expressions blank. But Elaine gradually wins them over, as she does their children, with a promise: "What I know is that they'll be walking into an environment of people that are going to love them, and accept them, and be with them, for who they are."
The kids have not always enjoyed this acceptance, even, their parents admit, within their own families. Adam's dad, Richard, thought his uncommunicative son didn't like him, and so he checked out of the family for over a year. Hillary, Lexi's mom, has to pause and collect herself several times as she reveals, nearly whispering, that her husband "always said, from the beginning, 'it's not up to us to judge the quality of [Lexi's] life.' You know? And I, I . . . find that a challenge." The film's interviews are unhurried and unflinchingly honest, and as the parents and children gradually reveal themselves to the camera, we come to feel intense sympathy and understanding for each of them.
The film interweaves footage of The Miracle Project's five months of rehearsals -- guided movement, pretend play, and developing scenarios -- with wrenchingly poignant home videos and interviews. We see Elaine meeting Neal in the orphanage and immediately rolling joyfully with him on the rug, followed quickly by video of a screaming, naked Neal knocking furniture over in their home. We see home video of Lexi, pre-diagnosis, standing in a corner, hands over her eyes, swaying: "Let's get this documented," Hillary says off-camera; "That's what autistic children do." Then her voice becomes pleading as we hear her try to engage her child: "Lex? Lexington! Shortie!? Oh man . . . " And we see sweet Wyatt speaking with sad sophistication about the bullying he endures in elementary school, and what he foresees for the future: "Maybe if I got into a regular class then I'd show the bullies that I -- how -- how I can deal with a regular class, they're not going to bully me, maybe. You think that's why? You think it's because I'm in a special ed class?" He pauses, and then continues more quietly, "They'll still be cruel in a main-stream class. I know that. I know they will."
Bullying is such a fact of these children's lives that as Elaine leads the kids through brainstorming and pretend play sessions -- working in big groups alternately with pairs and trios, and taking frequent breaks to let them run off steam -- bullying becomes the subject of their musical. Wyatt sings a song called "Sensitive" and grins about playing a bully: "I'm just acting! I felt fabulous! Great! Spectacular! 'Cause it's fun being a bully!" Lexi, who can't generate original speech but sings like a dream, brings tears to the eyes with her rendition of Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going." Adam, a charismatic, girl-crazy boy who communicates primarily via his cello, plays "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Even Neal participates --- standing on stage is a huge success for him --- and the parents all beam. The movie doesn't depict the full show; we see the happy, nervous anticipation as the parents arrive for the big event, downplaying their expectations and trying to calm their kids, and then, afterwards, lots of hugs and grins. The musical itself, of course, although the climax of the film, is ultimately far less important than the fact that everyone made it through the five-month project.
The children blossom under Elaine's attention, so proud of their achievement, but it's the moms who especially riveted me. They are wearing themselves out for their kids, even just to get a proper diagnosis. Hillary recounts asking a doctor, "Does she have autism?" And getting the unhelpful response, "Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say that, but it is organic." "And I thought," Hillary remembers, "Organic is good. Organic is healthy! Organic is pesticide-free! I mean, organic doesn't mean anything to me." But they are also struggling to save their marriages. Hillary's and Elaine's don't last, and the pressures of raising autistic kids are part of the troubled equation; Roseanne stays, despite her husband Richard's long affair, saying "Who's going to love [my son] Adam if I can't love Richard?"
But most of all, these moms are working to make a safe place in the world for their children, working to change society's impression of autistic kids so that they are not written off, but seen as full of potential, as complicated and as interesting as kids without the disease. And as their children grow up, these moms feel a clock ticking. It's one thing to handle a two year-old with poor impulse control, but a healthy 12 year-old can resist more successfully. Neal frightens Elaine by pushing a boy at a party, but we also see him starting to use a keyboard to communicate (his first words to his mom: "Be more of a listener.") An adolescent girl with echolalia, like Lexi, is a "perfect victim," and her parents worry about what will happen to her when they're gone: "I'm always trying to dream up a scenario for the future: I'm gone and she's going to be okay because
. . . what? What did I do now to make sure that happens?"
Finally, Roseanne draws parallels to the Civil Rights movement. Speaking to the other parents at The Miracle Project -- and in doing so, pointedly addressing the film's audience -- she says, "It's not enough for you to be doing better, the whole tribe has to do better, or else you really can't do much better, believe me, and I see all of your kids as my son's tribe." Roseanne's words resonate with me. Autism doesn't touch my family directly, but that doesn't matter. Every parent worries about how their kids are treated outside the safety of their own family, how their children function in a group of their peers, and even how they'll manage life without us. Sending my son off to kindergarten this fall felt a bit like sending him out into the woods: would the teachers really listen to him? Would the other kids treat him kindly? Would the tribe greet him with open arms? Autism: The Musical reminds us to see all families -- those with typically developing kids and also those with special needs kids -- as part of our tribe.