By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Fifth graders at Sunny Sky Elementary School were confused about Sam, a classmate who didn’t act and react the same ways the rest of the class did. So they ignored him, teased him, and finally asked their teacher, “What’s wrong with him? He’s not normal!” She explained that Sam had autism, a neurological disorder, and that there’s no such thing as normal.
“No Such Thing as Normal,” a short musical about autism, was written by Gaby Lucas and performed by fifth graders at St. Peter’s School on April 4. Lucas, the mother of two children with autism spectrum disorders, wrote the musical to help children and adults learn more about autism, as well as advocate for families living with autism.
The teacher, Mrs. Martin, told the class that autism is a neurological disorder, not an illness, and that nothing was “wrong” with Sam. “Answers on a test can be wrong,” she reminded the class, “directions on a map can be wrong, and the recipe for my tuna casserole is definitely wrong! But a person isn’t wrong just because they are different.”
Mrs. Martin, played by Pam Sollars, added that the first thing to do to help a child with autism is to learn more about it. Sollars, a parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder, knows what “Mrs. Martin” is talking about. “Autism is not a disability,” she said. “It’s a different ability! It’s a matter of not being able to always find order in their heads, because there’s a sensory symphony going on in there.”
She said she has learned a lot from Lucas and the Jellybean Conspiracy Project, an organization founded in 2001 by UMKC professor Dr. Howard Martin. The mission of the Jellybean Conspiracy Project is to bring people together by sponsoring shows that share life changing secrets and help educate people about those secrets.
Lucas, executive director of JCP, said the St. Peter’s performance was the first time this script had been used. “Autism Spectrum disorder is a huge rainbow of behaviors, talents and abilities,” she said, and every person with autism is as different from another as jellybeans in a jar.
She wrote on the JCP web site that “Autism need not be a negative, painful numbing word. It becomes our reality, our source of laughter and eventually a reason to celebrate.”
With diagnosed cases of autism spectrum disorder on the rise, more and more children and adults find themselves uncertain how to approach or respond to a person with autism. Lucas wants children to have a better understanding of the general characteristics of autism behaviors, and learn some simple ways to help peers with autism remain calm, communicate with others and “fit in.”
Mary Anne Hammond, another St. Peter’s parent who also has a child with special needs, played another teacher, Mrs. Garcia, in the musical, and suggested “different ways to communicate” with classmates and acquaintances with autism. Simple sign language, such as pointing to the forehead with a pained expression, could mean the person with autism has a headache, she said.
Jessica Horner, St. Peter’s music director, played a third teacher, Mrs. Cooper, and oversaw the fifth grade talent show in No Such Thing as Normal. The talent show featured Sam, a fount of fifth grade math knowledge, listing things he knew.
The two performances of “No Such Thing as Normal” were the culmination of a 10-week process during which the Jellybean Conspiracy artists — dancer/choreographer Gaby Lucas and actress/director Andi Meyer — worked with the fifth graders in a classroom setting. As the children learned the songs and rehearsed the scenes, the topic of autism was synthesized into the reality of their classroom and their lives. Involving the students, teachers and several parents in the musical helped raise their awareness of autism, and how to approach a peer with the disorder.
After the performance, Lucas and Meyer led a question and answer session with the St. Peter’s students who had acted in the musical and students from St. Elizabeth’s School, who had been in the audience.
The St. Peter’s students willingly shared their new knowledge about autism with school mates, other parents and with the St. Elizabeth’s students. “The social part is the hardest,” one student said, “and you have to approach being friends with a child with autism differently. You don’t just expect them to join in; you reach out and invite him or her to join you or your group of friends in a specific activity. They might chose not to and go off by themselves, but they know you invited them.”
Sollars said “just being asked” means a great deal.
The musical was performed again that evening.
St. Peter’s is one of eight schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph providing inclusive education: educating students with special needs alongside their brothers, sisters, neighbors and peers. The schools, St. Peter’s, St. Elizabeth, Visitation, St. Thomas More, Archbishop O’Hara High School, Nativity of Mary, St. Therese, and St. Mary’s High School, are assisted by financial grants to fund salaries for special needs teachers, paraprofessionals, provide staff development programs and purchase materials and equipment. The grants are awarded by the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education. Fundraising efforts for F.I.R.E. are supported by the parents, school communities, individuals and foundations in the Kansas City area. F.I.R.E. Executive Director Maura Nulton said, “St. Peter’s was an ideal place to present ‘No Such Thing as Normal,’ because the community truly practices the message promoted in the musical.”
Sollars said the logo symbol for autism is a puzzle piece, since autism manifests itself in many different ways. The sensory blizzard is one of the manifestations. “We all have sensory issues to some extent,” she said. “Some of us don’t like loud noises, others have problems with fragrances. But for someone with autism, the noises, the smells are all magnified.”
The main way to support a person with autism is to show compassion and understanding, Sollars said. “We want to try to help them manage their day and not feel sorry for themselves. Accountability can be difficult for a person with autism, but we just have to remember that God made us all different, and there’s no such thing as normal!”
For more information on the Jellybean Conspiracy Project, visit www.jellybeanconspiracy.org or contact Gaby Lucas, (913) 636-2640.
For more information about F.I.R.E., please visit www.fire-program.org.