Familiar sounds and movements can make difficult tasks seem easier because they are comforting. Through those associations, music can connect the mind to the soul.
Take Jason King, for example. “Jason has always been a handful,” said Marsha King about her 16-year-old son. “He was diagnosed with bipolar/ADHD when he was about 9.”
Jason has a 134 IQ and is as mature as a 10-12 year old. When Jason was 15, he was stabilized with medication and diagnosed with high functioning autism.
“One of the biggest issues he experiences is the ability to be flexible and follow direction to do things when he should,” his mother said.
However, Jason moves to the beat of Artists Unlimited. There, Jason can express himself because it gives him the opportunity to perform on stage, just like he does at home.
“When he is on stage, he is in the world of his character and all the troubles and anxiety of everyday life just vanish,” she said.
Carol Cassara is on the Artists Unlimited board of directors. She said people from all walks of life and a variety of disabilities are welcome there because no one should be limited based on their ability level. This idea underlies how arts programs for people with disabilities help participants develop skills for managing their lives by focusing on what the participants can do, and not what they can't do.
However, the stigma surrounding an individual who has a mental or physical disability typically prevents this inclusive mindset. Some families may even feel like an outcast after they are aware of their child’s diagnosis.
“When my son was born...I was devastated by the diagnosis,” said Carrielyn Bertino, mother of Charlie, who has Down syndrome. “It wasn't that he had Ds, but it was more how some were treating us. Instead of congratulations … people were apologizing to us. If only I could keep our son in the bubble of our family and friends he would be okay.”
But the Bertinos’ bubble popped when they found GiGi’s Playhouse, a Down syndrome achievement center in Rochester. It was here that they found the acceptance and support they wanted.
“This is what makes GiGi's so special; this is how we will change the outdated perceptions that people have regarding the abilities of people with Ds,” said Bertino. “This is everything to me and my family.”
People of all ages and economic backgrounds are welcome at GiGi’s, where free, purposeful programs are offered. These programs are educational and therapeutic and help improve gross motor and fine motor skills.
“We have families sending us messages that their children tell them how they finally feel that they have a place where they belong,” said GiGi’s Playhouse President Jennifer Bustamante. “We hear this a lot and it makes this mission of global acceptance for all individuals with Down syndrome worth every minute we spend doing and thinking of making GiGi's a better place.”
Whether someone is working to improve their handwriting, communication skills, or even learning how to order a pizza, each program at GiGi’s strives to educate, inspire and encourage people to believe that anything is possible. They call this their “best-of-all program.”
“It may be that they took a step, it may be that they wrote a letter, but it's the best of all for them and we encourage everyone to find their best of all,” said Crystal Englert, program coordinator and board member at GiGi’s Playhouse.
The expression of art can create an inclusive environment for every individual, regardless of their ability, age, gender or race. In particular, music fosters a sense of normalcy for individuals with an intellectual or physical disability.
Melissa Reed, assistant clinical professor in music therapy and manager of the Nazareth College music therapy clinic, said that music therapy may not eliminate challenges but it does make them less intimidating for such individuals. Reed said that people “are extremely motivated to attend music therapy, they participate while there, and are often sad to leave.”
Some may even use music as a tool for escaping everyday challenges in order to create a peaceful experience. That even applies to family members who must cope with their loved ones’ challenges.
“I wouldn’t feel as supported, I wouldn’t have as many friends, I wouldn’t have a sense of purpose and passion and for my son, he wouldn’t have acceptance, friendships and an opportunity to do something he loves,” said King when asked about the purpose Artists Unlimited has in her life.
Regardless of the genre, the lyrics or the artist, there is no doubt that music makes people get up and bust a move. “We believe that music creates a positive atmosphere that we should be able to sing and voice our feelings at every time and so we incorporate those into all the programs,” said Englert.
Members of AutismUp also express their feelings through music and art, under the instruction of a student music therapist. Participants also work with 2D and 3D art and engage in drama and improv.
“It really does seem to be an activity for most people that helps calm them, provide some social interaction with just asking for materials and relaxation,” said Jan Steurat, education and behavior specialist at AutismUp.
Cooking classes, physical activity and clubs teach integrity and allow people to be themselves, without the worry of being judged. These activities may help an individual cope with everyday challenges, but they have a greater purpose that helps beyond the program’s walls. There is a unity and connection created at AutismUp that allows participants to feel accepted, even if they do feel like an outcast at school or in public.
“The confidence they get, and the self acceptance they feel here, they carry home with them and they carry to school with them and it helps them a little bit,” said Steurat.
Life can seem limitless if an individual with a disability is given the opportunity to see their potential. With the right tools, an inclusive environment and a support system, these individuals can overcome challenges.
“Every parent wants their kid to be happy,” said Steurat. “And these parents, parents of kids who are on the spectrum, are no different. They want their kids to have friends, to be happy, to have a circle of support, people who really love them and care about them and to not feel anxious all the time. They want their kids to be comfortable.”
This story by Diana Russo is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, and readers.