Mixing theater and therapy to help kids with special needs

Although storm clouds darkened the sky over Loyola University’s campus in Columbia last April, they were no match for the bright lights and broad grins shining on a makeshift stage inside the graduate center. There, before a standing room only crowd, 14 kids sang and danced their way to a better life.

The show had nothing to do with fame or talent. All the glory came because one child stepped up to the microphone and another one could sing a song without prompting. One actually looked at his fellow actors as he spoke, and another smiled on cue.

This was the sixth performance of Expanding Horizons: Broadway Kids, a program for special needs kids, mostly with Down syndrome and autism disorders, designed to combine speech therapy with theater skills to improve communication and social interaction. It’s a partnership between Loyola University’s speech therapy clinic and the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts.

“It brings tears to my eyes,” says Natalie Kurtz, of Elkridge. Her son, Chaz, 15, was one of the performers that night, speaking his lines clearly and looking at his friends onstage. Chaz, who suffered multiple seizures as an infant, is a veteran of the program, which started as a pilot in 2009.

“In the first play, he wouldn’t get up to the microphone or say a word. Three years later, he’s actually helping the other kids,” Kurtz says. “He’s talking, and he’s expressing his feelings more.”

A new kind of therapy

Janet Schreck, director of clinical centers for Loyola University, calls Expanding Horizons “a testimony to what collaboration between passionate people can accomplish.”

And, curiously enough, the idea for the program “literally happened over a piece of cake,” she says.

Schreck is talking about the Columbia Foundation gala three years ago when she was introduced to Toby Orenstein and the two asked what one another did for a living. Orenstein, director of Toby’s Dinner Theatre and founder of the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA), spoke of her grandson who has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, and said to Schreck, “You’re a speech therapist. Isn’t there something we can do?” Schreck recalls.

The next day, Schreck approached Erin Stauder, one of Loyola’s clinical supervisors, with the same question.

Four months later, CCTA program director Beth Rosas, Stauder and a handful of graduate student clinicians gathered in a room with a bunch of middle-school-age speech therapy clients. It was the beginning of a new kind of therapy.

“It’s like sneaking in the vegetables,” says Stauder, a practicing speech pathologist for nine years, who also has acted in community theater in the Baltimore area. With the help of Rosas, a drama and English teacher at Mt. Hebron High School in Ellicott City, the pair developed a 10-week program with weekly rehearsals lasting an hour and 15 minutes each.

“Rehearsals run like theater, but we are working on their individual speech goals,” says Stauder. Goals include using the face to express emotion, how to read facial expressions and body language in others, and how to use tone of voice to convey feelings.

Rosas uses theater games like pantomime and role-playing tailored to the kids’ goals. “We work on projection, memorization, choreography patterns and teamwork,” she says.

Show business

The Expanding Horizons cast and crew have staged shortened versions of musicals such as “Free to Be, You and Me,” “High School Musical” and “The Wizard of Oz,” which the students performed last year to a full house at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

For the spring 2011 session, Rosas decided to try something new. She asked the students what their favorite songs were and wrote a musical around them. That meant stitching together a narrative with songs like “There’s No Business like Show Business,” “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” from “Annie,” “Castle on a Cloud” from “Les Miserables” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Erin McLaughlin, 13, from Laurel, has been coming to Loyola for speech therapy since she was 2 years old and also joined Expanding Horizons from its start.

“She’s always loved music. That’s why this is a perfect fit,” says her father, Mike McLaughlin.

As she’s become a teenager, her parents struggle with getting their daughter to follow directions, unsure at times whether it’s her Down syndrome or her age that is the culprit. But that’s improving since Erin started the program. “Plus, she is learning to communicate better,” McLaughlin says of one of his goals for his daughter. “I hope she’ll be a self-advocate one day. That’s what we’re working toward.”

After two years of success, Loyola decided to open the program up to children outside its speech therapy clinic. That’s when Anne Johnson heard about it and registered her daughter, Caroline, who was an eighth-grader at Patuxent Valley Middle School, in Jessup.

Speech difficulties have never been an issue for Caroline Johnson, who has an intellectual disability. Instead, she has the tendency to be too silly, says her mom, and she worried that her daughter might try to be the class clown.

“She was hesitant and nervous at first, but the minute she walked in the door they were so welcoming, and she loved it. She’s learning to be appropriate at the right time,” says Johnson.

At the post-show reception in the lobby, Caroline autographs her friends’ programs. When asked what her favorite song was, she answers: “All of it.”

“She doesn’t have a big social circle outside of this,” says her mom. “We’re hoping that she’ll make friends that she can see outside the program.”

New horizons

The success of Expanding Horizons doesn’t surprise Orenstein.

“I always believed that you could use theater to help educate,” she says. “Then you would see miracles happen.”

She’s seen evidence of it in her grandson’s life. As he’s been exposed to theater for many years, she’s watched his confidence grow. “He’s learned to have conversations with people and not be afraid or ashamed to talk to someone,” she says.

“We do not realize how lucky we are if we don’t have disabilities,” says Orenstein. “If more ‘average’ kids were involved, they would have a greater appreciation for the human being.”

That’s also part of Expanding Horizons — a few typically developing peer siblings participate in the program. They act as role models and gain understanding of their peers’ disabilities as well.

In September 2010, with four successful semesters behind them and a new grant from the Columbia Foundation, Loyola and CCTA took Expanding Horizons to Wilde Lake High School. Twenty kids with a broad range of disabilities were enrolled in the program, which took place during the latter part of the school day.

“We didn’t feel like we had progressed with the students in the 10 weeks as much as we wanted,” says Schreck. They went back to the Columbia Foundation and asked for funding for a second semester.

Cutting down on dialogue, adding more songs and working more closely with the teachers made all the difference, according to Schreck. They hope to offer the program in another high school this fall.

“There’s nothing like this in research data,” she says. Loyola has been a “laboratory” for this approach to speech therapy, she adds.

Both partners hope that having the graduate student clinicians involved and working with non-speech therapy personnel will give wings to what can be accomplished.

“The performance is great for the kids, but that’s the least of it for us,” Schreck says. “It’s the work in the rehearsal where the actual progress is made. If other people can’t replicate it, it won’t help the greater good.”

Natalie Kurtz doesn’t need convincing of the value of Expanding Horizons.

“I think he could do more stuff now, get more extracurricular activities,” she says of her son. “I’ve been telling people that I know who have kids with disabilities that they should join. I definitely recommend it, even to sibling peers.” 

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