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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

New theater uses song for autism therapy

A group of children stood in the bright spotlights, singing notes of hope, holding hands. At first glance, it was difficult to discern those with a life-altering disorder and those without, as they all spoke the same words and moved with the same gestures.

Christine Totah knew such a dream was possible for her autistic son, Alex.

Alex has danced and sang in several productions with Davis Musical Theatre Company (DMTC), but some companies were wary of casting a child with autism. In order to better address Alex’s needs, she and Blythe Corbett, an assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, founded the SENSE Theatre, a musical theater company for children with autism.

“It’s a stage for hope,” Totah said.

To raise funds for the program, the SENSE Theatre held a benefit event on Feb. 6 at DMTC’s Hobut Performing Arts Center in Davis. The benefit raised close to $10,000 in ticket sales and donations.

The evening included a pre-show reception and a musical concert performed by members of the SENSE Theatre. Franc D’Ambrosio, an actor noted for his appearance as the phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, also performed.

Young performers, including members of The Blue Skirts from St. Francis High School and Ambassadors of the Sacramento Theatre Company, joined the SENSE youth ensemble for an evening of musical pieces. The SENSE Youth Ensemble includes children with autism as well as peers without autism.

“[Alex] felt that overwhelming sense of accomplishment,” Totah said about her son’s participation in the benefit performance. This was in contrast to an earlier incident backstage, when he asked to be taken home due to sickness. He then described the symptoms of stage fright, which Totah explained to him was normal.

“You find out your kid [with autism] is no different than [those without],” Totah said.

In SENSE performances, each child with autism is paired with a child performer without autism, referred to as a typical. The pair rehearses and performs together, as the benefit demonstrated. During the rehearsal period, the children with autism practice with video recordings of the typicals performing the roles.

The program aims to help the children with autism improve their social functioning by studying the typicals’ movements and intonations both in rehearsals and in the video modeling.

Additionally, SENSE Theatre will provide a method for further autism research. Corbett, also a clinical neuropsychologist with the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, plans to monitor the children’s stress levels. A previously published study by Corbett suggests that children with autism respond uniquely to new events, producing an exaggerated cortisol response.

She said she will measure the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, before and after to see if the program produces a measurable change.

Using musical theatre in autism therapy is not unprecedented. Totah credits her initial idea to a screening of HBO’s “Autism: The Musical” in April.

In the documentary, however, adults were the children’s helpers, Totah said.

“I knew that if I started a theatre [for] autism, it had to have kids,” she said.

Corbett agreed that using child peers as typicals, in addition to producing a full musical production, makes SENSE Theatre distinct.

The SENSE Theatre will hold its first production, The Jungle Book Kids, in early June. Auditions for the performance are scheduled for March and rehearsals begin in April.

Jenifer Price, the SENSE Theatre director, said that The Jungle Book Kids appealed to her because of the ensemble cast and theme of community. Price, who graduated from UC Davis with a B.S. degree in human development, has been involved with DMTC for over seven years.

The total cost of the production will be between $25,000 and $30,000, Totah said. This includes rental of the DMTC Performing Arts Center as well as the various tests each child will receive before and after the program. Currently, the program is funded entirely by donations.

In addition to creating a program for local children with autism, the founders hope SENSE will serve as a model for other programs too.

“[I want others to] pick up the cookbook and repeat the recipe,” Totah said.

At the conclusion of the benefit performance Corbett said, “I will never forget this night, and it’s just the beginning.”

For more information about SENSE Theatre or the upcoming production visit sensetheatre.com.


SARA JOHNSON can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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