‘Miracle Project’ founder to speak at Connections brunch

Elaine Hall with participants from “The Miracle Project,” a theater and expressive arts program for people living with autism and other disabilities (Courtesy Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona)

If she didn’t have it all, Elaine Hall had a lot of it. A Hollywood acting coach at the top of her game, Hall worked with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and John Goodman. Her specialty was coaching children.

Only one thing was missing. What she really wanted was “a Bam Bam of my own,” she says, referring to “The Flintstones,” one of the movies she worked on. That’s when she and her husband adopted Neal from a Russian orphanage. Then he was diagnosed with severe autism and Hall soon discovered traditional therapies simply did not work with him.

Hall will discuss what she did next and the rewards that evolved from those actions as the keynote speaker at the Connections 2016 brunch, “Where Words Leave Off … Music Begins,” sponsored by Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. The event is set for 10 a.m. Sunday, March 6 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

Today Neal is a happy 21-year-old who has a job he loves and a fulfilling life. During his growing-up years, Hall says she developed an alternative therapy using movement, music and dance that allowed Neal to express himself and gave him confidence. She now uses those techniques in The Miracle Project, a theater and film program she founded in 2004 in Beverly Hills, Calif., for children, teens and adults with autism and other disabilities.

“Traditional therapies were not able to reach [Neal],” Hall says. “But what was able to reach him was acting and movement and music. For example, if he would flap his hands, like a lot of kids with autism will flap their hands in front of their faces, traditional therapy would say, ‘Hands down, hands down,’ or ‘quiet hands,’ and then reward him with an M&M. That actually made him more anxious. What I would do is, if he would flap, I would flap with him and join his world and we’d be birds together. We would flap around the room together and gradually on his own he stopped flapping.

“What does any mother want but to connect with her child? I just found that if I followed him and followed his lead and joined his autistic world, we would connect. Traditional therapists thought I was crazy, I was loony. What I found is that we were sharing special times together that otherwise he would be in his own world.”

Eventually, Hall says, she found others, doctors and therapists, who were successful treating people with diagnoses of autism using non-traditional therapies. She found creative people to implement what she had learned and using these methods she developed “The Seven Keys to Unlock and Understand Autism.” Then came The Miracle Project. Hall has taken her methodologies global, with China and India among the countries she has visited.

Hall also created a program called The Miracle Project Judaica, “which uses Jewish music, dance, story and culture to create an inclusive, dynamic, Jewish community for individuals with autism and other special needs,” according to the website, themiracleproject.com. There is also an opportunity for children with disabilities to study for their bar or bat mitzvah at a level and method that best suits and respects the child.

Besides her work with The Miracle Project, Hall is the author of “Now I See the Moon: A Mother, A Son, and the Miracle of Autism,” which the United Nations selected for World Autism Awareness Day in 2013. Books will be available for purchase and signing at Connections. Hall also wrote “Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles in the Classroom.”

Members of the Young Women’s Cabinet Mitzvah Project are asking Connections participants to bring donations of new construction paper, crayons, glue, glue sticks, markers, pencils, scrapbook supplies, tape and tissue paper to benefit the Taglit special needs program at the Tucson J and the Tucson Alliance for Autism.

“We’re just trying to make a difference in our community,” Danielle Larcom, director of Women’s Philanthropy, says. “To see the impact the women are making is wonderful.”

Also at Connections, the 10th annual Bryna Zehngut Mitzvot Award will be presented to a Southern Arizona teen.

The cost to attend is $36 plus a $180 minimum pledge to the 2016 Federation Community Campaign ($18 for students). RSVP by Feb. 19 at jfsa.org or contact Karen Graham at 577-9393 or kgraham@jfsa.org.