The Gift of Musical Theatre for My Autistic Son


Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

Ryan, my 16-year-old son with autism, participated in his second high school musical theatre performance last week as a member of the ensemble. This is not just your typical, run of the mill production. The kids in our high school theatre program are so incredibly talented that many of the high school musicals blow away our local community theatre and touring companies. The cast, the pit, the crew, the dedicated teachers who direct and choreograph, the set and the costumes look like they belong in a theatre in New York City, not in a Pennsylvania high school performing arts center. And there among them, is my son, the teenager who struggles to fit in most places… except on that stage.

Opening night was last week and I sat in the audience in awe of all of it. The show, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” runs for five days and of course I go to all five performances. Every night I swear this is the night I will watch the entire scene and not just focus on Ryan in the scenes he is in, but, I can’t seem to take my eyes off him. I sit mesmerized and in awe with a big stupid grin on my face, and everyone else on the stage disappears.

With every costume change I see the little boy who melted down when the seasons changed and it was time for a different coat. With every beautiful choreographed, spot on dance move, I see the little boy who ran with an awkward, unbalanced gait. With every perfect note that comes out of his mouth, I see the little boy who couldn’t find his words to tell me if he was hurt, angry, scared or sad. With every photo he poses with cast mates, I see the little boy who always played alone.

I swear, I try to watch the rest of the cast, the leads who work tirelessly learning all their lines, songs and dance moves, but there, in the ensemble, is my son singing, dancing, smiling and honestly almost unrecognizable from the teenager I see struggle to understand the world off the stage. Yes, I realize he has a phenomenal memory, so knowing where he is supposed to be on that stage and exactly what he needs to do is easy for my son. I also know that with the gift of perfect pitch, hitting the right note in each and every song for him takes little effort, too. And yes, I get that having a script to follow allows him the confidence to behave or “act” a certain way that he knows is “right” and will not be dejected for getting it wrong. But still, there is this magnetic pull that does not allow me to disengage.

From my seat in that performing arts center, I am transported back to a time when I never could have imagined this scene being played out before me, which makes every note, every dance step, every confident bow all the more glorious.

And this is why I can’t look away.

For many of you walking a similar path with older kids or adult children, I know you get it. I texted my best friend last night, who didn’t know Ryan when he was little and when he really, really struggled. I told her I would love to take her back in time so she could meet that same little boy I speak of and really, truly see how far he has come. But also, so she could remind me (when I need it) just how far he will go.

Image Credits: Kathy Hooven

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