For a group of kids, including those who have autism and other disabilities, a unique theater program is setting the stage for acceptance, understanding, and friendship.
It's a little after 5 P.M. on a sunny Monday afternoon and the Bluett Theatre at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia is swarming with 5- to 8-year-olds. The 36 kids are shrieking, running around the aisles, and bouncing up and down on the theater seats. "Okay, guys, we're singing the final number," shouts their director, Jenny Jacobs, over the din. She gives the nod to the orchestra, and as soon as the first chord is struck, the kids freeze, settle in their seats, and start singing a song from the musical Snoopy: "If just one person believes in you..."
An hour later, Jacobs and Betsy Wolf Regn, a former English teacher serving as stage manager, have run through ten of the 17 show tunes that make up Reviewsical, the musical review the children will perform for a 400-person audience at 7 P.M. Some of the kids look slightly stunned as they peer out at the empty theater. But when they reach the chorus of a Sound of Music medley, they perk right up, popping out like cuckoo-clock birds and yodeling right on cue.
Welcome to Wolf Performing Arts Center (PAC), a nonprofit children's community theater program founded in 2005 by Regn's mom, Bobbi Wolf, a retired middle-school teacher. It's a program known throughout the Philadelphia area for its professional-level productions that showcase the talents of its many gifted young stars. But look a little closer and you realize that this is no ordinary theater program. When the cast gathers in the theater's green room to play warm-up games before showtime, an 8-year-old with autism hangs back, mesmerized by the blue plastic beads on her string bracelet -- a token that Jacobs has distributed to each child as a reward for their hard work through nine months of rehearsals. "Come on, we can't start the super-secret warm-up game without you!" Regn tells her, gently nudging her toward the sofa. Two 5-year-old boys scoot over to make room for her, and the girl breaks into a big smile. Then Regn and Jacobs turn their attention to calming the rest of the group, some of whom have ADHD and other behavioral problems and are rolling themselves impatiently off the back of the couch.
The teachers and parent volunteers milling around take this kind of chaos in stride, because this group is far from unusual at Wolf PAC. From the center's "Broadway Babies" classes for children as young as 18 months to the annual musicals featuring actors ages 5 to 18, children who have autism and developmental delays, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and a range of emotional disabilities perform right alongside their counterparts who are not disabled. And they usually blend in so seamlessly that it's impossible to pick the "special needs" kids out of the lineup. "Labels are for jars, not children!" Wolf likes to say. "And Wolf PAC is not a theater program for children with disabilities. We're a theater program that includes children of all abilities."
A Place for Everyone
Wolf's mission statement sounds simple, even obvious -- but it's an important distinction. "If you isolate children with disabilities into their own programs, you lose many of the benefits that come from 'inclusion,'" says Simi Linton, author of My Body Politic and a consultant on disability and the arts in New York City. The term "inclusion" refers to a relatively new approach in special-needs education, where kids of all abilities are taught in the same classrooms or extracurricular programs as long as it's clear that each individual child can benefit from the experience. It's a departure from the traditional model of "mainstreaming," where a child's level of participation is based on how well he or she can keep up with the other students. And while the idea is gaining some traction in schools, inclusive extracurricular programs are few and far between. "Our culture has narrow definitions of who can be an actor or who should be on display," says Linton. "But every kid has an imagination and deserves a chance to explore their creativity."
Wolf's determination to make Wolf PAC accessible to all children comes from personal experience; her older daughter, Samantha, now 37, has multiple handicaps and lives nearby in a group home. "While my children were growing up, we saw firsthand how people respond to disabilities, and it's not always pretty," Wolf explains. "Wolf PAC is about community, and these children are a valuable part of our community. I was determined to create an opportunity for them to contribute their talents." Regn, Wolf's younger daughter, knew that she had to sign on. "As Sammi's sister, I was born into a family where it was a given that we would be advocates for people with disabilities," she says. "I love theater because it offers a home to all kinds of kids who maybe don't belong otherwise, whether they have a disability or just aren't one of the 'cool kids.' Our job is to create a safe environment where these kids can learn how rewarding it is to help create something bigger than yourself."
Abigail Ford has watched her 9-year-old daughter, Lucy, who has autism, develop that sense of being part of a larger whole. (Ford asked that her family's names be changed because her daughter is still too young to fully comprehend her disorder.) "I don't know if she knows she's different, but the great thing is that at Wolf PAC, it doesn't matter that she's different," Ford says. "Every child feels welcome."
Lucy's biggest challenge is figuring out how to recognize social cues and engage with other kids, says Ford. But Ford knew she'd found the right fit in Wolf PAC when she watched Lucy waiting backstage during a 2010 production of Peter Pan. "The kids were playing with a Game Boy to pass the time and I saw Lucy hanging back by herself, until one of the other girls turned to her and said, 'Hey, do you want to play?' and they showed her how to use it," Ford remembers. "It was such a small moment, but it's the kind of natural interaction that someone like Lucy doesn't get very often."
Indeed, while inclusion is an increasingly common goal in academic settings, it doesn't always help foster the kind of social encounters children need. Clara Konrad, another mom of a Wolf PAC-er with autism, asked that her family's names be changed in this article because she's watched her 9-year-old daughter Josie's pool of friends shrink as classmates and their parents become aware of Josie's challenges. "Once people noticed Josie leaving the mainstream classroom for special instruction with the autism-support teacher, she went from having about eight friends in first grade to just three now at the end of third grade," Konrad explains. But every summer, Josie goes to Wolf PAC's camp -- and enters a much more accepting world. "Nobody pulls back from Josie because of her autism," Konrad notes. "Instead, they work on coaxing her out of her shell." The staffers know how to play to Josie's strengths, which turn out to be singing and memorizing lines. And they use a variety of strategies to help the children warm up, both socially and on stage. "We always plan big dance numbers so that any kid who might have trouble can be near someone she knows and trusts," notes Regn.
Tapping Hidden Talents
Participating in a theater program offers many concrete benefits for kids with disabilities. Memorizing lines and playing a role can be a great way to learn how to interact with others. "It takes the pressure off trying to figure out what to say or do in a group setting, because it's already been scripted for them," explains Beth Myers, a former special-education teacher and the director of educational services at The Kelberman Center, a not-for-profit treatment program for kids with autism in Utica, New York.
That comforting structure of rehearsals and the plays themselves have helped Lucy feel comfortable trying new things. "Routine is so important to Lucy. She always needs to know what's happening next, and in a play it's laid out for you," says Ford. "That makes it easier to go outside your comfort zone saying lines or singing a solo." All of this gives kids confidence, which is especially critical for children who are used to focusing on what they can't do.
And this confidence is something they can carry away from Wolf PAC too: Memorizing complex lines of dialogue helped Josie realize that she could also remember multiplication tables, after years of struggling to grasp basic math concepts. And while day to day she still has to work to make eye contact and understand her mom's sarcastic sense of humor, when she's on stage Josie lights up the room. "She's discovering that she can do things that not everyone can do," Konrad says. "We might never have discovered who she really is without Wolf PAC."
Dave Sill knew that his oldest daughter, who was 4 when she took her first Wolf PAC class, would be a theater natural. But he and his wife, Malissa, worried about her 3-year-old sister. "She just shut down in social situations," he explains. "She wouldn't talk or make eye contact and would cling to her mom when we said hello to people she'd met dozens of times. It was breaking our hearts." Wolf suggested they sign her up for Wolf PAC classes, but the Sills were skeptical. "We couldn't see it working out as well for her," Sill explains. "But in six months, she was a totally different kid."
It's stories like these that demonstrate precisely what Wolf PAC has to offer. And it's why Rachel Nichols wanted her sons, Simon, now 11, and Lucas, 7, to join. "They're learning that people are different, but everyone is equally important," she says. Two years ago, Simon bonded with an older castmate who has a developmental disability and he's always happy to see her again at Wolf PAC events. "From Simon's perspective, they worked together to create a show," Nichols explains. "That bond matters more than their differences." As a middle-school teacher, she understands that mainstreaming kids with disabilities is often imperfect: "Schools can have a community feel, but achievement is measured in grades, which means success is very individual," she says. "At Wolf PAC, successes are shared. It makes a great case for how children can work together in a way that's joyful for everyone."
Questions Kids Ask About Disabilities
"Many people with disabilities would prefer to hear straightforward questions than to be avoided," explains former teacher Beth Myers. Simi Linton, who uses a wheelchair, adds, "How you talk to your kids will impact how they interact with us." Don't stress if you don't always get it right.
"Why can't Jenny walk?"
What to Say If you know the answer, offer a simple explanation ("She hurt her legs in a car accident"). If you don't, it's okay to say, "I don't know. Maybe we can ask her sometime."' Remind your child that we all have things that make us different, but suggest that she focus on what she has in common with Jenny.
"Why is that big kid throwing a temper tantrum?"
What to Say "Even though you learned to talk when you were 2, some kids don't learn until they're much older. And even kids who can talk might not remember the right words when they're angry." Foster empathy: "What could you do if one of your friends was that upset?"
"How are we supposed to play with Andrew if he can't do anything?"
What to Say "Let's ask him for some ideas and think about what we can all do together." This allows Andrew to be the authority on his disability and gets the kids working as a team. It also takes the focus off what's "wrong" with him and encourages kids to think about their environment: Why don't the swings at the playground work for someone in leg braces? What would be a better design?
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Parents magazine.
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