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A true rite of passage

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Unusual theater project prepares autistic teens for bar and bat mitzvahs.
By James Ricci, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 23, 2007
The bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies mark Jewish children's public passage into a new identity as people responsible for their actions and for living in accordance with their faith.

What about autistic children, however, whose identities seem locked away inside them? How can they profess themselves responsible members of a community?

Such questions sometimes occupied Elias Lefferman, chief executive of Vista del Mar Child & Family Services, a nonprofit agency with roots in the Westside Jewish community, and he went looking for answers. He found them in Elaine Hall, a tiny woman with an outsize reputation for coaxing autistic children out of their sequestered worlds using methods she developed working with her own autistic son.

Hall had trained youngsters for theatrical productions. Lefferman wondered if she might apply her methods to prepare autistic youngsters for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. Hall leaped at the opportunity.

On a recent afternoon, three boys in the program demonstrated how they train for the ceremony -- Hall's son Neal, who is nonverbal; 12-year-old Wyatt Isaacs, a highly functioning, keenly articulate boy; and Dov Shestack, a lanky 15-year-old who is nonverbal and seems disconnected from the world around him.

Wyatt and the adults sang a song titled "Because of My Brothers and Friends," while Neal danced with his mother and intermittently hummed. Dov sat on stage with his aunt, who kept one hand on his cheek to help him maintain eye contact with her and the other hand on his throat to feel the vibrations that indicated he was singing.

Such moments are a constant source of encouragement.

Hall started the program in October 2006. Working with a group of five children, she and her volunteers taught prayers by having their students sing them, dance them, act them out, and, for the profoundly nonverbal, beat drums to show they were sharing the experience. To teach Hebrew letters, they had the nonverbal children form them with their bodies or bake them as cookies. They had the youngsters make their own yarmulkes and rehearse in Vista del Mar's sanctuary where they would eventually perform.

Last May, two of the boys, including Neal, had their bar mitzvahs, appearing before an audience of 92.

With the help of his speech therapist, Neal had written a long speech, which was spoken by his stepfather. One of Neal's coaches, Cantor Steve Puzarne, had recorded songs and prayers into an electronic device, and Neal had to push the right buttons at the appropriate times in the ceremony to play them.

At one point, Neal grew discouraged and left the sanctuary, but two friends, one of them a more highly functioning fellow trainee, went to him and helped him return to complete the ceremony.

Rabbi Jacqueline Redner was struck by the effect the unusual rite had on the audience. "We were dancing and running around," she said. "When kids get bar mitzvahed, they have the opportunity to teach something, and these kids did. They had no pretense, and it was such a lesson for all of us."

Hall has noticed a change in Neal since he underwent the rite.

"All the big decisions about what to do were Neal's that day," she said. "He's been this little mensch ever since. He's responsible for his own actions, and he knows it. He helps around the house; he cleans up. He's present 100% and has a sense of self he never had before." The experience also has marked Puzarne.

"I've been bar mitzvah coaching for 25 years, and these kids catch on as quickly as any I've coached at other synagogues," he said.

"In my experience, they're some of the most spiritually profound people I've ever met. I have definitely changed my teaching of the typical kids because of what I've learned from these youngsters."

Now Hall and Puzarne are considering extending the program to synagogues to help them prepare autistic bar and bat mitzvah candidates in their congregations.

Inspired by therapy

Hall's methods have their roots in her adoption of Neal from Russia a little more than a decade ago. He proved to be seriously autistic, unable to speak, averse to eye contact, given to flapping his hands, spinning in circles, banging his head.

Hall grew frustrated with conventional therapies, which sought to restrict Neal's inappropriate movements. Inspired by the methods of Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a psychiatrist and pediatrician, she tried a radically different approach.

It involved her entering Neal's world and gradually drawing him into hers.

"If Neal would flap his hands, I'd flap my hands and we'd fly around the room like birds," she said. "If he spun around, I'd spin around with him, and we'd turn it into ring-around-the-rosie. He'd have me doing it all day, and whenever he made even a second's eye contact, it was like, wow!"

Hall quit her job as a television acting coach to devote herself full time to Neal. She also enlisted a number of coaches and students she knew from her acting classes.

"Ten hours a day, seven days a week for 10 months, I had somebody with Neal in his world," she said.

Over time, the initial goal of trying to "get him into our world" for 30 seconds of a two-hour period expanded to the point where, at 13 1/2 , he attends a full day of middle school mainstream classes, augmented by two classes for the learning disabled.

Hall combined what she learned teaching Neal with her work as an acting and dance coach, and in 2005 founded The Miracle Project, a nonprofit theater group for children with autism, attention deficit disorder, Tourette's Syndrome, cerebral palsy and other afflictions.

At the beginning of the theater group's first of two 11-week sessions, "there were kids hiding under chairs, pulling floor mats over their heads, crying, 'No! No! No!' " she said. "By the second 11-week period, it was no longer about behavior issues, but who's going to get what parts, and we did this amazing show," a mixed-media musical titled "Everyday Miracles."

A new program

Some documentarians asked Hall to create a similar theater group only for autistic children and allow the process to be filmed. The result was "Autism: The Musical," which is to air on HBO in April.

During the recent demonstration of how the candidates are trained, Dov Shestack and his aunt had been sitting apart while a visitor spoke with Hall and the other adults about the bar mitzvah program. The boy had held a card with a keyboard printed on it and tapped various letters while his aunt wrote down the words.

When Dov was finished, she handed the message to the visitor. It read:

"Bar Mitzvah is the most important part of my life. . . . Tell people that people like me love to learn because we are a lot more like you than you think."

james.ricci@latimes.com

More information is available at http://www.themiracleproject.com/



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