In 1996, Elaine Hall traveled to an orphanage in Siberia to adopt her son Neal. Soon after, the boy was diagnosed with autism, and she began a difficult but determined course to reach her nonverbal child, now 16. A children’s acting coach, she founded the Miracle Project in Los Angeles, a theater and film program for children of all abilities, and other advocacy efforts, and is the subject of an Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Autism: The Musical.” She was in New York last month on a speaking tour in connection with her memoir, “Now I See the Moon: A Mother, a Son, a Miracle” (Harper).
Q: How did you become an activist for children with autism?
A:By default, not on purpose. My son wasn’t getting the support he needed. I knew I had to stand up for him. I then started helping others to get the services they needed.
Autism is an invisible disability. You see these beautiful children with quote unquote bad behavior. It’s not like seeing children in wheelchairs or with Down syndrome. It’s more challenging to have compassion for a kid who seems out of control.
To change the way the world perceives autism. People are afraid — parents of kids that are typical fear they’re going to catch it. Kids make fun of people who are different. Autism is actually extraordinary. There are all these myths that they don’t have emotions, prefer to be alone, can’t think creatively. I didn’t have a traditional background in special education. I found the opposite — that people with autism are among some of the most sensitive, caring individuals I’ve ever met. They may create a protective shield as sensory stimuli can become so overwhelming.
What inspired you to bring together theater and kids with special needs?
When traditional therapies didn’t work for Neal, I found my theater people — actors, singers, dancers — were able to join Neal’s world. They didn’t have to be taught to think outside of the box — they didn’t know there was a box. I was inspired by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Dr. Barry Prizant, both of whom taught me that every behavior is a communication.
What I really felt lacking in my life was a sense of community, and theater is a great vehicle to build community. For the first few weeks, we tried to forge a group. If someone didn’t want to come in the door, a volunteer would stand outside with him. If a child hid under the table, we’d hide there too. Gradually, we came together.
How does your bar/bat mitzvah program, Nes Gadol (Great Miracle) work?
We use the same principles as in the Miracle project —individualized learning, seeing the child through what they can do, not what they can’t do. Neal was the first bar mitzvah. He danced his prayers and typed a speech, which we read.
In your work, you say that you draw much strength from Judaism.
I draw my strength daily from the God of my understanding. When I’m in doubt, I go inside and pray and meditate and ask God for help a lot. Shabbat is meaningful to me.
How can the Jewish community be more helpful?
Invite a family with an autistic child over for Shabbat. Let your teenager help out the family. Offer to shop, bring over dinner, especially for a family with an early diagnosis. Rally support, include these families in every way. Everyone needs to be educated. Synagogues need to have special-needs services. Accept that every child can be a bar or bat mitzvah.
Learn to listen to the child that doesn’t speak. Maybe our kids are today’s prophets. Maybe the world is too loud, too much, too toxic.