CLEARWATER — At the first rehearsal, the little boy with thick curly hair looked lost — not so much frightened as off balance. He sat at the far edge of chattering children and covered his ears. • Nine kids had come to Ruth Eckerd Hall last September to learn to act. They'd signed up to work all year on a play. About half of them looked ready for anything. The other half, among them the curly-haired boy, looked numb. It was unclear if they had voices at all. One boy, as soon as his mom left the room, crawled under a table. • Ben had the big head of curly hair. He favored bright stripes on his T-shirts and liked to go around in his white socks. He stayed close to his nanny, who was always whispering something in his ear. He had a sweetly soulful, melodious look about him, as though he heard an inner song. • But he kept his ears covered and didn't say a word.
The two girls and seven boys, ages 8 to 12, were brought together by Loretta Gallo-Lopez, a Tampa mental health counselor and "drama therapist" who works with autistic children.
She had been inspired by an acclaimed 2008 HBO documentary called Autism: The Musical. It followed five autistic children in Los Angeles through the making of their own play.
It's accurate to say that the nine children Gallo-Lopez assembled fell somewhere under the broad spectrum of autism. But to say more about its mysteries is almost meaningless.
If you want to see an autistic trait, look in the mirror. Are loud, sharp sounds aggravating? Do you tune people out? Do you misinterpret others' feelings? Are you frightened by change? Do you sometimes say the wrong thing?
Most of us fake it. We put on a good act. We go through life masking our interior difficulties. These nine kids were guileless. They didn't fake anything.
Maybe Miss Loretta could help them be better actors.
The kids started out not as a cast, but as a crowd. Three, including Ben, weren't speaking. One kept crawling under the table, the only piece of furniture in the rehearsal room. Most of the rest wanted to chase each other around.
Miss Loretta laid out the one big rule. No laughing at other kids, no matter what. This was a safe place. They got that.
She began by herding them into a circle to practice eye contact and listening. Tell the next kid your name. Pass a ball. Tell everyone a joke. She asked each kid to interview the person to the left, then tell the others what he or she liked most.
She coaxed Marcus out from under the table. She lured Hailey out of the costume box. She guided a solitary boy out of his room-pacing. She quieted the boys chattering about Pokemon. She let Ben stay close to his nanny.
Michael, chief chatterbox, badly wanted to tell everybody about his horrible day at school. He was all arms and legs and tousled blond hair.
He got to go first. Well, he said, stammering slightly, he had a bully at school. Got him so upset he cried.
"I set a world record. I blew the world's largest snot bubble."
That was kind of hard to top.
They started around the circle. Michael introduced his friend Cameron, a fellow intellectual who gives a lot of thought to photosynthesis. Introducing him, Michael said, "Technology makes him happy."
They kept going around. The boys learned that Hailey was a princess and considered the underside of the table her "chamber." Andrew and Reno were the superhero types. The room-pacer, the handsomest boy, gave it all he had. With Miss Loretta beside him, gently asking him, he said he was Jack.
What could they learn about Ben? He stood by his nanny. He covered his ears. It was still unclear if he could talk.
His nanny asked, "Ben, what do you like?"
"Ben, what do you like to eat?"
"Pizza? Broccoli? Spinach?"
Shyly, he smiled.
"Sprinkled ice cream!"
He had a voice after all.
• • •
Steve Turner showed up at a fall rehearsal with his drums. He organizes drum circles. He goes all over Tampa Bay, putting drums in the hands of children with learning challenges or elderly folks in nursing homes. He shouts a battle cry that seems to echo out of the Far East — "BUY-YAAY!" — and sets everybody off on all-out pandemonium.
The kids looked hesitant. Most hate loud sounds. School fire drills, even single musical notes, had wreaked havoc among some of them in their early years. Ben's nanny was especially worried. He was still covering his ears.
Steve had a personal theory that children with sensory problems actually find comfort in drums. The kids yearn to be spontaneous, but they need predictability. Drumming and its rhythms offer both.
Maybe Marcus was proof. He crawled under the table. But he took a drum with him.
The others formed a circle.
They started to play. The walls shook. Andrew and Hailey began dancing. Reno jumped in, breakdancing.
Ben suddenly came to life. He shouted "BUY-YAAY!" He pounded on his drum one-handed.
With his other hand, he covered one ear.
They continued practicing interaction more than acting. Marcus rarely went under the table anymore. Hailey liked to retreat to her "chamber," but only during short breaks she asked for. She pretty much stayed busy telling the boys what to do. She was blue-eyed and blond. The boys, especially Andrew, were happy to oblige. Watching his friend Andrew looking pie-eyed at Hailey, Michael said sadly, "I think I'm going to barf."
Miss Loretta broke the kids into pairs. Each kid had to describe a problem to his or her partner, and the other had to suggest a solution. Things got brutal.
Princess Hailey was paired with the other little blond girl in the class, Jackie.
Hailey told Jackie, "I want to go to the movies. Would you like to see Marley & Me?"
Jackie: "I'm already going to the movies with Beth."
Hailey: "Well, what's my solution?"
Jackie: "Make another friend."
Michael and his pal Cameron took their turn.
Michael said, "I'm having trouble with a bully at school."
Cameron, hand on chin, eyes cast upward, answered, "Hmmm. An interesting problem. I'd say stomp on his fingers."
Miss Loretta overheard them. She tried to hide her smile. "Well, that's one solution," she told the boys. "Can you think of another?"
Cameron still had his hand on his chin. He paused.
"No," he said. "I think that's it."
• • •
The word autism was rarely mentioned. The children never questioned why they were in a play together. Michael's parents talked over autism with him a lot at home. Some, like Reno's mom, said they didn't know how to explain autism. A lot of doctors can't even explain autism.
Marcus' mom figured he knew more than he ever let on. Even from under the table, he took in everything. He rarely spoke but seemed to know everyone's lines. He never told his mom about the table.
At school, Marcus' teacher had a reward system. When kids did well, they got happy faces. When they were bad, they got sad faces. One day, Marcus quietly got up from his desk, walked to the front and pasted a sad face by his name. Then he walked over to a row of plants and knocked them all to the floor.
He hadn't said a word. But he had paid for his crime in advance.
• • •
In mid January, the children sprawled on the rehearsal room floor, drawing and coloring sets for their play.
Marcus kicked his shoes off. He stretched out beside Hailey.
"Hey," Hailey complained, "Marcus poked me in the leg with his foot!"
Reno, who was drawing next to her, looked up. "Aw," Reno said, "he can't help it."
All at once, the crowd seemed more like a cast. It was the first time anyone had shown solidarity. Michael took the cue.
"He just has autism," Michael told the class.
"We all have autism.
"That's why we're here."
The kids came up with a play. Basically, a guy named Mechanic Mike would find a time machine at MOSI, the science museum. He would travel into the future, where he'd meet a bunch of characters like a dragon (Andrew) and an astronaut (Commander Marcus). He'd help the dragon rescue Princess Mia (Hailey), who couldn't wake up from an evil spell in her chamber under the table. He'd attend a concert by the famous singing robot, Benbot.
All they needed was a title.
The boys wanted something fantastic or scientific. Andrew suggested Trip to the Future. Cameron offered Time Machine 2.0.
Princess Hailey, of course, went classical: Sleeping Beauty.
Early in the rehearsal, they had practiced compromises. Cameron now offered one:
Journey to the Future vs. Sleeping Beauty: The Battle Begins.
• • •
In March, Michael missed rehearsal. His grandfather, John Wheeler, had been killed in Delaware. "Pop Pop" was struck by a car while jogging. "Pop Pop" was a prominent accountant and civic activist. Hundreds attended his funeral, and many of them got up to speak.
Michael was in a pew beside his mom and dad. He nudged his dad.
"I want to say something."
His dad shook his head. He didn't know what Michael planned to say. It had to be something he'd composed while sitting in the pew. For all Dad knew, it might include a snot bubble.
His son nudged him again.
"I want to say something."
Dad looked over at Mom, quizzically. He got up with Michael, escorted him to the microphone, lowered it for him. Michael waited patiently. The packed church was silent.
They heard a child's high, slightly stammering voice echo off the church walls.
"I'm Michael Wheeler, John Wheeler's grandson. He was a very kind man. I loved him so much. But he had a destiny no one knew about. That was to spend almost 63 years on Earth. Something I heard I shall always remember and never forget: the true meaning of friendship. All lives tow other lives to create something new and alive. Let's just hope the Lord is making sure Pop Pop is safe. He'll be loved and missed by all."
The play was held in Ruth Eckerd's black-box Murray Studio Theater. Parents and grandparents filled the seats. Through the year, none of the parents had been allowed into the rehearsals. They had helped their kids make costumes, but most had no idea what the play was about.
They saw Mechanic Mike zip through time, saw him land in the future in a No Parking spot, saw Ripper the Dragon free Princess Mia from her table chamber by giving her a hug.
They saw Benbot, the famous singing robot, waiting calmly just to stage left. His nanny stood in the wings. He wore a box covered with aluminum foil. Just his arms stuck out. Every so often, he still covered his ears with his hands.
The spotlight snapped on. Ben walked to center stage.
The boy who couldn't find his voice began to sing. Ben's voice sounded strangely bluesy, older, slightly hoarse, like that of the artist he'd listened to countless times on his favorite CD. He sounded like a young Louis Armstrong.
I see friends shaking hands, sayin' "How do you do?"
They're really sayin' "I love you."
Ben swayed as he sang. He spread his arms wide, briefly covered his ears, then opened his palms facing out, looking up, as though embracing everyone in the theater, everyone everywhere.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2258.