Elaine Hall - "Coach E," the founder of The Miracle Project, is an educator, writer, consultant, performer and professional acting coach for TV and film who has written and directed more than 30 children's plays. She is the mother of Neal, who was diagnosed as autistic after adoption. When traditional therapies did not help Neal, Hall sought out creative people (actors, writers and musicians) to work with her son, developing new methods to reach autistic children, which resulted in The Miracle Project. She now coaches both typical and "special" children with relationship, self- esteem and self-confidence issues, as well as children and young adults seeking professional careers in entertainment. Most recently, Hall was the children's acting coach on the feature film "Akeelah and the Bee." Her unique, positive relationship-building approach to children's arts education has been featured in many documentaries and publications. She has served as a drama coach for Wildwood School, UCLA Bruin Kids, Pressman Academy, Walt Disney Studios, Universal Studios, ABC Television and Nickelodeon. Hall brought us up to date on Neal's progress, as well as what's been going on with the Miracle Project.
Like a regular teenager
Neal is mainstreaming at Lincoln Middle School, a large middle school in Los Angeles. He has a one-on-one aide but he's in four regular ed classes and two learning disability classes. He's actually playing basketball instead of throwing the balls at cameras and things, with a special ed basketball league called the Special Maccabees. We have a home computer where he can type words and then the words talk back to him. At school he has something called a "Say-It! SAM," a voice activated machine that uses little icons where he pushes what he wants. In many ways he's a regular teen. He loves to listen to Coldplay and play computer games. He's an incredible hiker.
Dancing his prayers
He had his bar mitzvah last May and his speech therapist helped him type things out over four different sessions and we put it together and my husband read it at his bar mitzvah. He typed that God helps him find patience with his autism. And that it's his responsibility to be an example and that his gifts are his humor and his love. And that his greatest miracle is mom. And that mom rescued him from a different life. Of course that made me bawl my eyes out. He danced for his prayers at his bar mitzvah. It was really beautiful.
How Neal communicates
Neal has something that's called apraxia, which isn't just the inability to form language, to form speech. It's also an inability of the hands to manipulate, as well. His speech therapist, Darlene, has helped us to actually get Neal organized where he can output his thoughts through his hands and finger. He does facilitated communication for his deeper thoughts and now he's typing independently at home to communicate the simpler things like "I wanna go to Starbucks" and "I want a pumpkin scone" and "Let's go to the park."
The Play is Not the Thing
The play at the end is really not the most important thing. The 18-20 weeks prior to the play, before we even get on the stage, are really the heart and the soul of the program. We literally have kids who start out hiding under tables, can't come into the room, it's too loud, they've never been in a social situation before. Their parents say, "I don't know if this is gonna work. They've never been socialized."
For the families, it's a community where it's not about therapy. It's the one place during the week where it's not about "What's wrong with my child and what goals do I need to set?" For the kids, it's a place where they come in and they're immediately loved and accepted and part of a community and missed. A lot of our kids -- you're not really missed because they kind of cause a ruckus out in the world. [LAUGHS] But here, if someone doesn't show up, they're really missed and everyone calls and wants to know where they are. It's like 'Cheers' -- it's a place where everyone knows your name.
Lots of wonderful things are happening with the Miracle Project. Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in L.A. has adopted us. It's only a year at a time and provided I can raise the funds ($100,000) every year. As a result of the screenings of Autism: The Musical we're getting requested tostart Miracle Projects literally all over the country and I've been even asked in the Philippines and Australia. So I formed along with Wyatt's mom the Miracle Projects LLC to create a curriculum to show people how to create their own theatre program for kids that learn differently. Plus, we're creating a CD of the original songs that are in the movie and ones that didn't make it in the movie. Songs for, or about, kids with autism and we're having out kids doing duets with celebrities - Taylor Parks from Hairspray... Jason Alexander, Gary Cole, and Stephen Stills is going to sing "Sensitive" with Wyatt.