Presenting: Louie, king of the monkeys!”
This was Evan’s line last week in a camp performance of “The Jungle Book.”
Six words. Evan’s six words in his first play ever.
But this is more than a story about a boy with autism in a summer camp production.
It’s more than about a boy with autism almost keeping up with his typically developing peers as they sang and danced on stage during a 40-minute show.
It goes beyond the fact that nobody knew what Evan was going to do on stage if he was scared, frustrated, nervous or angry. He was a wildcard for the director, the other kids who worked hard over the last few weeks and even to himself.
This is about a boy with autism who not long ago was so afraid of everything about a theater that he wouldn’t go near one.
Theaters were too dark and a live show too unpredictable, especially with all the clapping and cheering – all the things Evan hates the most.
Yet my husband Jon and I felt the need to help him get over his fear by slowly exposing him. While it may sound pointless and cruel, we’ve learned that Evan is able to overcome some of his fears by desensitization.
We started this process a few years ago on a cruise where there was a live performance practically every night. At first Evan went in unwillingly. It wasn’t easy for anyone, because Evan thought that by making noises he’d be taken out immediately.
We sat in the back of the theater and negotiated a very short list of reasons why he could leave early. We also came up with a “prize” he could earn for doing a good job. I honestly don’t remember how that night turned out, so it must not have been that bad. And, as far as I know, we weren’t banned from future cruises.
In spite of the fear, there must have been something – probably the lights – about the theater that Evan really enjoyed, because he began watching YouTube videos of theaters. Then he started drawing them. Then he started setting up theaters in our basement and putting on shows. This year he even requested a trip the symphony.
This is more than about a boy with autism doing a play. It’s about a boy who works so hard to overcome his fears in a place that can be far too chaotic.
Just a few days before the show, the theatre staff incorporated the lighting sequence, and suddenly Evan was refusing to rehearse.
The director game him a flashlight to wear around his neck. His counselor gave him a pep talk. His mother gave him a bribe, and in the end it all worked out.
For two performances Evan took the stage. He did his best to keep up with everyone. Sometimes he accidentally got in the way of the other actors. During the first show one kid backed right into him and almost fell flat on his face. During the second performance, Evan was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and got slapped in the face.
He didn’t always dance or sing when he was supposed to. He spent a lot of time looking up at the lights and peering out into the audience to find us. But, he delivered his lines on cue, he kept it together and, most important, his permanent stage smile showed everyone he was having a great time and to that I say:
“Presenting: Evan, king of the stage!”