On a recent evening at California State University, Northridge, Elaine Hall guided nearly 30 special education teachers through a lesson on what it’s like to be autistic.
“Now, close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and out and now explore your senses,” Hall instructed. “First touch. … Listen. What do you hear? … Taste … Smell … Open your eyes … Now, explore them all at once.
“Imagine feeling like this and being asked to pay attention and connect,” said Hall, scanning the faces and reactions of the disoriented students in the class. “The senses are all colliding. It’s really challenging.”
Hall, the author of “Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Creating Miracles in the Classroom” and creator of The Miracle Project, a theatre and film social skills program profiled in the Emmy Award-winning HBO documentary “Autism: The Musical,” used the exercise as a way to illustrate the challenges faced by many children with autism. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that there is a wide range of variation in the way it affects people. Some children with autism may be nonverbal; others highly verbal. Some children on the autism spectrum may have challenges with social skills, communication skills, language development and anxiety.
She explained to the students that many children with autism spectrum disorders have sensory processing issues and underreact or overreact to sensory stimuli.
For a child who is very sound sensitive, sudden noises, such as a ringing telephone, can be upsetting — and they may respond by covering their ears and making repetitive noises to drown out the offending sound. Some children on the autism spectrum may be highly sensitive to touch and texture. They may cringe at a pat on the back or the feel of certain fabric against their skin. A child may “act out” because of feeling overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation in their environment. It is important to recognize that all behavior is communication.
Hall served as guest lecturer this spring in the Department of Special Education’s Accelerated Collaborative Training Residency (ACT-R) program. She agreed to speak after hearing positive information about the university from her husband, Jeff Frymer, M.A. ’05 (Family Therapy). The ACT-R program is a combined 24-month credential/master’s degree program offered collaboratively by CSUN and the Los Angeles Unified School District. The program prepares teachers to serve students with disabilities in high-need schools. Candidates obtain a credential in one year through full-time study as a teacher-in-residence. In the second year of the program, graduates are employed in the LAUSD and complete their master’s degree while on the job. With an additional semester of study, candidates may obtain an education specialist clear credential.
“We do this to show teachers that it’s not just about the intervention,” said Ivor Weiner, coordinator of the department’s autism certificate program and the professor who invited Hall to speak as part of the four-part lecture series. “It’s important that students understand the kids they are working with.”
Jennifer Flowers, one of the students in the class who is currently working with special-needs children at a Pacoima elementary school, said the lecture series has added “life, a face and humanity” to the textbook.
“She (Hall) has really brought so much passion and knowledge,” Flowers said. “I have a better understanding and appreciation for working with children with autism.”
Hall, nicknamed “Coach E!” and called “the child whisperer” by The New York Times, was a top Hollywood children’s acting coach whose life changed dramatically after her son Neal, adopted from a Russian orphanage, was diagnosed with autism. When traditional behavioral therapies did not work for him, she sought the help of child psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan, who encouraged her to rally creative people to join Neal’s world.
“I had to find a way for me to connect to Neal and for him to connect as well,” Hall said. She founded The Miracle Project, a socialization program that enables children and teens with autism and other special needs to express themselves through music, dance, acting, story and writing. During her lecture, Hall told the class that in her book, she lists “acceptance” as an important key to helping autistic children.
“It’s important to notice their abilities instead of disabilities,” Hall said. She asked the class how they would feel if someone focused on their weaknesses, rather than their strengths.
“We need to train ourselves to be the happy detectives,” Hall said.