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Home » Elaine Hall, the Founder of the Miracle Project, Utilizes Art as Pathway to Communication & Discovery

Elaine Hall, the Founder of the Miracle Project, Utilizes Art as Pathway to Communication & Discovery

Elaine Hall, the Founder of the Miracle Project, Utilizes Art as Pathway to Communication & Discovery

By Ron Sandison


“Creative dramatics can be a bridge between the outside world and the inner world. We used what I call “rehearsing for life” with my son whenever we had something new that we needed to do whether it was going on an airplane or to the doctor.”
Elaine Hall

I was excited on December 3rd to meet Elaine Hall, the founder of the Miracle Project at the World Autism Conference in Loveland, Colorado. I presented a breakout secession on Overcoming a Hopeless Complex: Autism & Mental Health and Elaine presented on Autism and the Arts. I enjoyed listening to her perspective as a coach who teaches adult actors and actresses with autism and as a mom whose son Neal is on the spectrum. I gleamed insight into Hollywood and was excited to interview Elaine and share her journey and knowledge of acting and autism.

1. Why did you decide to adopt a child from Russia
When I learned that I was not able to give birth biologically I was devastated. I always wanted to have children, in fact I wanted to be like the old woman who lives in a shoe with so many children she didn’t know what to do and I always wanted children, some that I had biologically and some adopted so I always wanted to adopt but had never considered that I
wouldn’t be able to have a biological child. So my sadness was eased when I learned about the possibility of adopting a child from Russia, my grandfather came from Russia and he was an orphan in Russia. I thought,  if I couldn’t give birth biologically with a child that has my grandmother’s sparkly blue eyes or my father’s wonderful dance ability, I could have a child from where my grandfather was from—my heritage, so that’s why I decided to adopt a child from Russia. 

2. What lessons has your son Neal taught you about life and living in the moment?
Neal has been my greatest teacher. He’s taught me how to be present, how to be calm. He’s taught me how I need to profoundly take care of myself in order to be my best self with
him. When I was going through my hardest, most difficult challenges in life, I knew that I had to calm my own neurosystem in order to be the best possible mother for him. He’s also taught me courage, how to overcome obstacles, and how to keep showing up even when things are rough and tough. He’s really an extraordinary young man and with a strong will to be the best that he can be and he has motivated me to be the best person that I can be.

3.  As a creative thinker what was some ways you discovered to connect with Neal and enter his world?
Well it happened very early on. Neall would spin in circles and I would spin with him and we’d make it ring around the roses and he would bang and open and close drawers and cabinets and I would turn that into peekaboo. We’d bang and open things together to make noise. I entered his world in order to connect with him rather than to pull him into my world which seemed to cause him anxiety. I am thinking of one of the most beautiful times. When Neal was around 3 years old, whenever we would take a walk, he would stop at every single tire of every single car and we wouldn’t be able to get even a block without having to stop maybe 10 times. At that time, I was kind of a Type A personality. I was in a hurry, so I’d say, “Come on! We got to go! Let’s keep walking!” I had it in my agenda to get to the store. Finally, one time I sat down beside him when he was looking into a tire, and I realized he was not looking into the tire at all! Neal was looking at the hubcap and the way that the sun reflected on the hubcap was like a kaleidoscope of light and color! I asked Neal, “Is this what you’re looking at?” he nodded “yes.” “Were you trying to show me these beautiful colors in the hubcap?” and he looked up at me and again nodded. We looked at it for another 5-10 minutes and then we got up and walked to the store. After that, he never needed to stop and look again at those hubcaps. He just wanted me to share in his experience of his beautiful world. 
 
4. How has spirituality empowered you as a mom?
Well spirituality, my sense of something greater than myself, is really my anchor. It’s really my go-to for my own strength and comfort and I've always been that way. As a small child I used to talk to the Moon and I would talk to the God of my understanding. I had my own world. I’m neurodivergent myself and I lived profoundly in my own world as a child. I talked to spirits; I saw auras. It was really where I felt most at home. As a mom, being able to listen to a voice inside of me that was calm and knowing even when I was disgruntled or anxious knowing that there was this higher voice inside of me, allowed me to show up as a mom and always be present for Neal. One of the things that I vowed when I became a mother was that I knew I was going to make mistakes, but if ever something inside me, my inner voice, said something and I ignored it, that would be bigger than a mistake. So I vowed to always listen to that small voice so that I had no regrets. And the times that I didn’t listen to that tiny voice were times when things really went go awry. I believe that this voice is my inner guidance in my spirit and it has led me to every single thing in my life. 

5. How can Parents use the arts to enter their child’s world?
Look at what your child is doing, seeing without judgement. Allow yourself to see the world from your child’s perspective even if it’s something you don’t quite understand. Be curious. Enter their world. Use movement—if they flap their hands (Elaine is now flapping her hands in front of her eyes) do it yourself and see what you get from that. Maybe become birds together and pretend to fly around the room. Create collages together if your child is non-speaking. Take out magazine pages, be curious about the different pictures and create questions that your child can answer by pointing to or choosing a certain picture. Create story with the magazine pictures with a beginning, middle, and end. Creative dramatics can be a bridge between the outside world and the inner world. We used what I call “rehearsing for life” with my son whenever we had something new that we needed to do whether it was going on an airplane or to the doctor. We would rehearse it, we would practice it. We would set up the whole playroom as if it were a doctor’s office, and act out before ever going to the doctor’s office. I would take a photograph of the doctor’s office before my son would go so he had an idea already of the environment. Before traveling on an airplane, we practiced everything from packing your suitcase to carrying your suitcase to going through security and taking shoes off and putting backpack on the conveyor belt. We’d practice everything before we ever made it on an airplane.

So rehearse for life, practice things in life. Use acting, use improvisation, use music. My son expresses feelings by finding songs on YouTube that can express his feelings. Parents can use elicit language. Start singing a song and leave out one word and let your child fill in that word. There are so many ways to be creative. In my book Now I See the Moon there’s lots of examples of ways that we use the arts for Neal and in the Seven Keys to Unlock Autism, it’s a textbook that I co-wrote which shows how educators can use the arts in their classrooms.

6. How has “Autism: the Musical transformed peoples’ perspective of Autism and how has the film changed the media and movie industry’s perception?
I’ve been told that there is a big difference in people’s perceptions of autism pre Autism: The Musical, to post Autism: the Musical. Tricia Regan, the director of Autism: the Musical, said that she wanted people to realize that these were not just kids with a diagnosis, they were somebody’s child. She believed that the film was not about autism, but about love. I, (and thousands of others) agree with her. Autism: the Musical showed the ability within the disability of autism. It defied myths that children on the spectrum don’t want to be social. They can perform, they can participate with others, they can be part of a group, they can take direction, they can learn lines, they can express themselves creatively and they can express their thoughts and feelings and that they are highly sensitive. I think the film really debunked a lot of myths about what people thought that autism was. By airing on HBO we’ve brought Autism into living rooms. When I spoke at the United Nations, we gave a hundred DVDs (this was before streaming was available) that distributed all over the world. I am told that viewing the DVD’s really changed people’s perspective of what’s possible for people with autism. The film also elevated the media so they could see kids on the spectrum acting, singing, dancing and the media started to have more authentic representation and storytelling. Today there are all kinds of TV shows that are starring individuals on the spectrum, many of them feature kids from The Miracle Project. I have done a lot of consulting and acting coaching on these shows, so the media is changing.


7. Share some amazing experiences you’ve had with founding The Miracle Project?
There’s just been so many incredible experiences. I’ve seen children say their first words on our stages. I’ve experienced non-speaking multimodality communicators using AAC to write original films and lyrics to songs. I’ve experienced 17-year-olds who never had a friend now have an active, vibrant social life. I’ve experienced a child who screamed all the time, as she puts it, “one day opera came out of her mouth.” Today she sings opera and has performed at the UN, China, and at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. I’ve witnessed just so many amazing things. Next to adopting Neal and marrying my husband, creating The Miracle Project is definitely one of the greatest blessings. We’ve written and produced over 30 original musicals, many of which are available to be licensed and produced in schools and theaters. Young people who started out as volunteers have gone on to careers in occupational therapy, speech therapy, to be psychologists, therapists.  One volunteer, Hannah Warren, is now the clinical supervisor and program director of The Miracle Project! Every single day I have an amazing experience, literally every single day.

8. What advice would you give young adults who have autism and want a career in acting? 
Study, train, and learn. Don’t expect to just show up! Take an improve class, find opportunities to practice skits with friends and then above all be yourself. Don’t mask don’t try to be someone other than you. We neurodivergent folk have been acting our entire lives to make the real world make sense. I have found being my authentic self and really allowing myself to be loved and appreciated for who I truly am is my gift, so allow yourself to shine. Surround yourself with people who love you, appreciate you, and accept you.

9. As a life coach what lessons have you learned from the young adults you work with?
As a neurodivergent adult, I have learned to reparent myself, to love and appreciate my intense sensitivity, my challenges with linear thinking, and my different way of being in the
world. I’ve imagined my now adult self meeting the anxious little girl, I was, and in my imagination, sit with her and bring her acceptance and love—just as I did for Neal and for all of my students. This is one of the practices I use when I work as a life coach with my adult clients as well as my young adults and teen clients. I help them to revisit experiences in their lives where they judged themselves or were harshly judged by others and to reconnect with their wholeness and their essence and their love. I help remind them to accept and appreciate themselves for exactly who they are a perfect being that has disabilities fitting in the neurotypical world and to see they belong. 

10 What three tips would you give to parents whose child is recently diagnosed with autism and have a fear of the unknown?
 Three tips
1) You’re not alone.
2) Your world may get smaller but it gets richer.
3) Always be willing to ask for help because there is always someone who’s been one step ahead of you. 

It’s a challenging journey but it’s an extraordinary journey. When Neal was first diagnosed a rabbi’s wife gave me this beautiful story called “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Pearl Kingsley and in it talks about when you give birth to a child or you’re pregnant you have this vision that you’re going to be going to Italy and you can’t wait to taste the gelato and eat the pasta and walk through and see the antiquities and how amazing it’s going to be to go to Italy. And you’re on an airplane and you’re about to land and you think it’s Italy but actually Holland and you get off the plane and it’s no this isn’t Italy, I want to be in Italy, and you say no you’re in Holland and you’re really upset at first but then you realize wow Holland is not so bad. It’s kind of pleasant here and you accept that you’re in Holland and that’s what she wrote about her son that has Down syndrome that that’s what it’s like when you’re a mom and you find out your child has a disability, so I love that and it’s very sweet and beautiful but when I read it there was always something in me that didn’t resonate with it. But now I know exactly what that was. I got to Italy. I have an autistic son but I got to Italy. It’s that part of Italy that the tourists never get to see. It’s that narrow road that is hidden but there,  it’s the best tasting most incredible gelato you’ve ever tasted in your life, the music is so vibrant, the people you see are the most loving accepting appreciative welcoming humans on the planet, and the pasta oh my gosh the pasta it is like nectar from heaven. So I think we do arrive in Italy, it’s not without the yelling and screaming, that kind of disruption, but it is the most extraordinary part of Italy

11. What advice would you give to teachers and educators who desire to connect with their students who are on the autism spectrum?
  Not to be self-serving, but read my book The Seven Keys to Unlocking Autism. It has lots of good advice. Be curious, listen and keep your own neurological system calm. Don’t be
judgmental. Allow yourself to be taught by your student, take away your expectations of what normal is and how a child should behave. Include them in conversations, whether they use a device to speak or they may use pictures or they may use music. Allow them to be their self. Everyone learns differently. Allow yourself to see how this child responds to your type of teaching. Do they need directions, written down, do they need things broken down into small manageable tasks that make sense? Be curious, be mindful. Read Barry Prizant’s book “Uniquely Human”, Dr. Steven Shore’s books, and Temple Grandin’s book.

12. Share a humorous story in your journey with autism?
  We gave Neal some autonomy at one point and allowed him to walk around the neighborhood without us. He had a bracelet that showed where he was located, a phone where we could keep tabs on where he was and so he was allowed to walk where he wanted. Neal loves to smell flowers and bees. He can actually pick up a bee, smell it and let it fly away and he doesn’t get stung. He’s kind of like the Saint Francis of bees, he’s the bee whisperer. He was walking one day on his own and he was about 14 or 15 at the time and he went into a neighbor’s yard because they had a beautiful bush with purple flowers and he wanted to smell the flowers and to look at the bees. The homeowner called the police, we didn’t know this, and the next thing you know Neal’s at our door and there’s two police officers with him. Neal had actually walked them back to the house. They were very kind and I brought him inside. We talked to the police and found out what happened and we gave Neal a long talking to about this. He knows better than going into people’s yards. We asked him “Neal, now that this happened we need to know what will you do next time that you’re walking,” and he typed hide. Neal, that’s not the point you’re not supposed to go in yards! We don’t let him walk on his own anymore but he still has his autonomy as we follow far behind, but this was just one case of Neal being very clever. 

13. What are some cool projects you are currently working on?
So many cool projects! We’re in the midst of creating an original Musical that we will be performing at the Wallace Center for Performing Arts in May 2024. We are working on a music
video created by and starring multimodality communicators who use AAC to communicate. I personally am working on the promotion of a film I worked on last year called Ezra that stars a 12-year-old autistic youth. I’m on the board of the ReelAbilities Film Festival which is going to be in New York in April. There are so many amazing things happening. The coolest is I’m in development to adapt my memoir “Now I see the Moon” which was selected by the United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day, into a possible mini-series. 

14. How would you like to see traditional therapy for autism change and how can therapy better prepare people with autism for employment and Independence?
  I’d like to see traditional therapy for autism change by primarily being curious and respectful of the autistic, by seeing autism, neurodivergency as a different way of being. There are all kinds of minds. Honor and respect the neurology of neurodivergent individuals and autistic people. See that it’s not a behavior challenge but that behavior is an outcome of being misunderstood, of something causing pain. As Dr Barry Prizant says, “All behavior is communication.”  Really see the child, the young adult, and the adults really look at the whole person, the movement patterning the thought process, being curious, being reflective, understand the relationships. Relationships and trust are critical to any kind of intervention. Use the arts as intervention, follow the child’s interests and passions. Don’t call them obsessions! We wrote a musical a couple of years ago called “Journey to Namuh”. I won’t give it away but you can find it on YouTube. In it, a group of neurodiverse students who are in a very controlling social skills class are drawn into the magical land of ‘Namuh.” In this land, there are ‘no no’s. In Namuh, what others see as an “obsession” is actually an enthusiasm. Enthusiasm and passion can be helpful for employment and independence. Start really young. We started Neal at a young age doing chores around the house. He was doing laundry at eight, taking out the trash, setting the table. Start giving chores, something that they can have pride over. It’s really hard for me when I see parents who have children of 14 or 15 who have never lifted a finger. Temple Grandin speaks about this and the importance of not being babied. When I was a little kid I wrote stories and plays and instead of having friends at recess I would direct the kids on how to be different characters. That prepared me for my career, so really think about every aspect as an opportunity for independence and an agency for employment.

Elaine Hall Biography

Elaine, also known as “Coach E,” has been referenced by The New York Times as “the child whisperer” and is a pioneer in using theatre and movement practices as a portal for connection among individuals with autism and related disabilities. Elaine was a top Hollywood acting coach when her adopted son was diagnosed with severe autism. When traditional behavioral therapies did not work for him, she developed an innovative methodology combining mindfulness and the expressive arts with what she was learning from autism experts, Dr. Stanley Greenspan, Dr. Ricki Robinson, and Dr. Barry Prizant. These methods are chronicled in her book, Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles in the Classroom, which is used as a textbook in several universities, including Brown University. Elaine’s memoir, Now I See the Moon: A Mother, A Son, a Miracle was selected by the United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day, where she has been a featured speaker. Elaine has been lauded in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as on CNN, CBS, and the Oprah Winfrey Network. The Emmy Award-winning HBO documentary, AUTISM: The Musical profiles Elaine’s early work with The Miracle Project, which has since been deemed evidence-based and is now being replicated nationally and internationally.

Website: https://www.elaine-hall.com
The Miracle Project: http://www.themiracleproject.org

Ron Sandison

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom, published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. Ron has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes. Ron’s third book Views from the Spectrum was released in May 2021.

Ron frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016.

You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at sandison456@hotmail.com

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