Mixing theater and therapy to help kids with special needs

July 27, 2011|By Lisa Kawata

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.”

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