Traditional therapists couldn't reach Elaine Hall's autistic son, Neal. The appearance of Neal's autism, a brain development disorder that causes impairments in the areas of social interaction and communication, was a devastating irony for Hall, a performer and professional acting coach by trade. But her greatest role was as a mother, and she was not going to let Neal retreat into his own world. So Hall brought in theater people to act as therapists.
"If Neal needed to do crazy things, they would be crazy with him," Hall said. "They would join his world until he emerged into ours."
Part two of Elaine Hall's revelation about the positive effects of acting and movement is told in Autism: The Musical, a documentary about the six months preceding the opening night of a musical that a group of autistic children from Los Angeles star and sing in, as well as help create.
Hall's "Miracle Project" is as much for the children's benefit as it is for the families and communities that surround them. It is at once therapy, recreation and activism. Autism is much more diverse and complex than the stereotypical image of a child rocking in the corner of a room suggests. Director Tricia Regan sheds light on the diversity of behavior and ability found within the disorder by letting five of the Project's participants speak out about their own condition. Regan follows them from scene rehearsals to family dinners and even to the most debated space for autistic children -- the classroom.
Descriptions of the science or history of the "Miracle Project" and even of its final product -- we only see snippets of the musical's scenes and musical numbers -- are secondary to the voices of the autistic children and their parents.
The five children include Hall's son Neal along with Adam, a fitful, cello-playing 9-year-old; Henry and Wyatt, two talkative boys with high-functioning yet still debilitating autism; and the constantly smiling 14-year-old Lexi, whose mother doesn't know if she should give her daughter a talk about boys, or rather, if Lexi will ever need one. It is Lexi, singing a Joni Mitchell song near the beginning of the film that sets up the film's foci: the tense present and unpredictable future of these children plus the fear and stress of their parents. In her angelic voice, Lexi prophetically sings, "I get the urge for going but I never seem to go."
Not one parent, least of all Hall, is of the opinion that the harmonies of music will somehow translate into peace instead of the chaos that comes with raising an autistic child. Half of the profiled parents, including Hall, have had marital troubles (divorce, separation, an affair).
Despite the uplifting -- therefore misleading -- title, Autism: The Musical, the documentary is altogether bleak. Regan's fair view into autism offers hope that these children can enter our world but is far from saying each of them can eventually hold their own in it. The few successes the film celebrates seem to ride on the film's limited time frame. Hall's son Neal can type-talk now but will he ever be able to use his own voice? Hope exists because there are days ahead.
Autism: The Musical is a chance to stare straight into the eyes of autistic children, if only for a moment.