Theater project welcomes autistic children

February 28, 2010 9:03:29 PM PST
The Centers for Disease Control estimates an average of one in 110 U.S. children has autism spectrum disorder. A common challenge from parents of these children is finding an entertainment experience that lets their child feel free to be who he or she is.

For children, a trip to the movies, the circus, a play, is a happy, special time. However, for a child with autism who finds it difficult to sit still, keep quiet and process loud noises, these trips are usually out of the question.

Finally, a one-of-a-kind experience is happening in Chicago where theatre can embrace the young ones who sometimes drift just out of reach.

Inside Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavillion, a children's play was performed for an audience that is not quite the typical theatre audience.

"For a family with a child with autism, that's an experience that brings about anxiety," said Jacqui Russell.

Anxiety for both the child and parents. That's where the Red Kite project and their play The Red Kite Round Up step in. The unique, multi-sensory adventure encourages autistic children and their families to immerse themselves totally in a live theatre production.

The actors are trained to respond to each child's sensitivity.

"If a child wants to spin in a circle and look at the projections of birds, we are going to spin in a circle with that child," said actor John Francisco.

Jacqui Russell created the Red Kite Project. She is artistic director of the Chicago Children's Theatre and a drama teacher to autistic students at Chicago's Agassiz Elementary on the North Side. Russell was frustrated there was no live theatre for the autism community.

"Theatre typically is not a welcoming environment for these families. So, to create an environment where it's like come one, and our hardest challenge right now is to convince them that it is going to be a welcoming experience," she said.

Dr. Carol Rolland of Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, which has Chicago's largest autism treatment program, applauds the effort of this project.

"It gives them the opportunity to enjoy the same kinds of experiences that typically developing kids can enjoy. This is set up in such a way that they are going to be successful at it, and it will lead the way for them to go to other events," said Rolland.

"I feel the more I have him in out in the community, the more people are going to be aware of autism and accept my son wherever he goes," said Rose McDonough, mother of a child with autism.

For Jill Miller, the experience of The Red Kite Round-Up was exactly what she needed for her 6-year-old son, Andrew.

"A place where they can go and enjoy themselves and have a really good time and just be free," Miller said.

The Red Kite Project is ongoing and will soon begin taking reservations for its Red Kite Summer Arts Camp. The play is designed to tour.

For more information on where the next round-up could be or how to sign up for the camp, visit or

(Press Release)

Camp Red Kite is a Chicago-based summer arts camp tailored specifically to the unique interests and needs of children on the autism spectrum. Created in 2009 by Chicago Children's Theatre, the program is led by a team of artists, administrators, and special education teachers dedicated to creating a safe, welcoming, and comfortable environment for children affected by autism. Our aim is to foster a shared arts experience that encourages self expression, social engagement, creative exploration, and above all, FUN!

Over a three-week period this July, children at Camp Red Kite will participate in Music and Movement, Theatre and Drama Games, and Arts and Crafts classes. The CRK curriculum taps into strategies to ensure a high comfort level for all campers, including a consistent, highly-structured schedule that is displayed pictorially in each room. The experienced staff gives personal attention to each camper, shaping the camp experience so that each child can engage in his or her own way and feel successful. The program will culminate in a final showcase to share the Camp Red Kite experience with family and friends. For more information about Camp Red Kite, please contact Julia Beck, Education Associate, at 773-227-0180 x 15. Beginning date to call for the Summer 2010: March 15th.