When Ryan was younger, I took him to plays. I was a theater kid in high school and did some community theater when I was older. I liked acting and theater productions, comedies and dramas are my favorite. I have been known to break into show tunes while driving. Performing is in my blood.
When Ryan was younger, I didn’t know if I would be able to share my love of theater with him. I used to wonder if I would be able to share anything with him after he was diagnosed. But I never stopped trying.
I decided to take him to plays when he was about 4. I found small productions in North Hollywood and Burbank. The theaters held less than 100 people. The productions were short, some less than an hour. They seemed suited for Ryan, given his autism and age.
One show was based on fairy tale villains, maybe a little dark for a 4 year old, but stories Ryan could relate to. At the end of the show, the cast invited the audience on stage. Ryan walked to the middle of the stage and lied on his back. One of the cast members looked at him and said, “That’s right. You be you.” Little did they know that Ryan would later find a home on stage, but that’s another story for another time.
Finding things to do with Ryan can be challenging. He goes to a school called The Help Group in the San Fernando Valley. Every so often, the school has activities for the students. Sometimes it’s a resource fair or a seminar for parents to learn about different services that are offered through different groups and organizations in Southern California. Sometimes there are events geared toward the students. One in particular, one I took Ryan to, was a program put on by a group called Music for Autism. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was a music program geared toward an audience for people with autism. There were four singers performing and it was supposed to last an hour. It seemed perfect for Ryan. It was at a familiar place, limited timeframe, small crowd and something he might like. It turned out to be more appealing to Ryan than I thought.
One of the performers was Dianne Fraser. She has performed in theater productions in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Her daughter attended Summit View, one of the schools at The Help Group. Fraser was also designated as a Music for Autism spotlight artist in 2019. Eydie Alyson, who played Audrey in productions of “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “American Idol” finalist David Hernandez also performed.
The program started with a piano singer named Brad Ellis. He played some show tunes and explained how the program was going to unfold. It was broken up into three parts: performances by the singers, dancing with the audience and an interactive part that included drums and tambourines at the end. The audience was encouraged to move around and dance. With an audience of people with autism, expecting them to sit quietly and not move was unrealistic. Most of the kids wandered around the room. Some talked. Some danced. Most looked like they weren’t paying much attention to the performers. I thought this can’t be very enjoyable for the singers, but they didn’t miss a beat, literally and figuratively, and performed despite the distractions.
At one point, Ryan got up and walked to the front of the area where the singers were performing. It wasn’t exactly a stage, just a part of the room for the piano and microphones for the singers. Some kids were dancing. Dr. Barbara Firestone, the president and CEO of The Help Group, was one of them. Ryan started talking to her while everybody else danced. He participated, danced and interacted with some of the volunteers. He played a drum and clapped for the singers when they finished a song or changed music.
When the program was over, I thanked Dr. Firestone for putting on the show. I went to shake her hand and she didn’t let my hand go until we were done talking. She told me Ryan asked her if the singers knew any rap. They talked about Common and she told me Ryan didn’t believe she knew who Common was. Lately, Ryan has been fixated on the band, They Might Be Giants, mainly because they were on an episode of Blue’s Clues, which has been a perseveration for Ryan since he was in kindergarten.
For the most part, it was a positive experience for Ryan. His brother was not as entertained. He spent most of the show in the lobby waiting for it to be over. Finding things the both of them like is never easy.