Arts, Ability and Imagination

By Donna Tetreault

kids with disabilities

Jason Weissbrod, left, co-founder of Spectrum Laboratory, works on a virtual reality film with some of his students. PHOTO COURTESY SPECTRUM LABORATORY

Georgia O’Keeffe, the painter known as the “Mother of American Modernism,” once said, “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” O’Keeffe’s words say so much about art and what it can mean in one’s life.

In Los Angeles, we celebrate inclusion in arts programs. Many children with disabilities are taking their first dance steps, performing in their first music videos and imagining their first film projects because of the amazing programs available in one of the most creative places on Earth.

Meet The Girl Inside

We begin with Abbey Romeo Lutes. She is 18 now, but when she was 14 she began a journey to understand her autism. Here’s how Lutes described her brain: “My stupid brain. I want to rip it out and give it to someone else. I want a typical kid’s brain and put it in my head.”

Lutes’ mother, Christine Romeo, says Lutes has been aware that she is different since she was a toddler. “As life became more demanding, she came up with the idea that a little girl lives inside her,” Romeo says. “She is the one with autism who misbehaves, not Abbey. That is what it feels like. So Abbey is fully aware and has the desire to participate, her brain just can’t execute it.”

Then Romeo found a place in Los Angeles that would change everything – the Spectrum Laboratory film and music program. With the help of Spectrum Laboratory, Lutes wrote the lyrics to a song called “The Girl Inside” and sang the song in a music video: I don’t got no control. I ain’t got no control. I can’t let go, this girl inside, this girl inside. It’s not me.

kids with disabilities

Abbey Romeo Lutes uses music and video to understand her autism, with the help of Spectrum Laboratory. PHOTO COURTESY CHRISTINE ROMEO

“In 100 years, I could never imagine she could be capable of this,” says Romeo.

Jason Weissbrod, who co-founded Spectrum Laboratory two years ago, calls the program “a platform for the autistic community to get their art out there and raise autism awareness. We help them, we guide them and show their talent,” he says.

Since working with Spectrum Laboratory, Romeo says Lutes’ self-awareness has gone “from one to 100,” because seeing herself on video helps Lutes understand how she shows herself to the world.

Spectrum Laboratory is in its infancy, but the founders have big plans. They want to start a conservatory with classes in the arts for anyone on the autism spectrum who wants to be a part of what they call an “experimental place.” Weissbrod is a filmmaker and co-founder Garth Herbeg is a musician and composer. “We teach film, music, animation, writing, editing and song production,” Weissbrod says. “There are a lot of artists with a lot of talent. The side note is that they are people who have autism. The artists have big dreams. ”

Spectrum Laboratory (www.speclabs.org) empowers artists on the autism spectrum to create original works of film and music. They provide collaboration with professionals and help their student artists learn the skills of their craft. Kids and adults of all ages are welcome and classes are held at Spectrum’s Leo Baeck Campus (1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.) and Music Space Studios – Studio West (14801 Oxnard St., Van Nuys).

Dance If You Want To

In Santa Monica, Free To Be Me Dance hooks up kids with Down syndrome with a community where friendship, love and ballet collide. Daisy Mercado is limited in her vocabulary, but her older sister, Karina Cruz, says she lets her know Free To Be Me Dance makes her happy. “For Daisy, it’s been really nice because it has helped her socialize and made her more confident,” Cruz says. Mercado attends class once a week and participates in public performances. “It’s great for me, too,” Cruz says. “The community is supportive. It’s like we are a little family.”

kids with disabilities

Colleen Perry, founder and director of Free To Be Me Dance, has her dancers focus on self-expression. PHOTO COURTESY FREE To BE ME DANCE

Colleen Perry, founder and director of Free to Be Me Dance, says she sees her students build self-confidence, attention and focus. “It’s all about self-expression for them,” she says. “We don’t focus on the perfection of ballet. It gives them acceptance.”

Perry is now in her eighth season at Free to Be Me Dance (www.free2bemedance.com) and had never taught before when she started – though she had studied ballet for 17 years. What is most important for her is seeing her students become part of their community. Perry reports that some of her students are now participating in school life through cheerleading, drill team and school plays. One of her students is even working toward earning a black belt. The dance sessions are fun and filled with joy, but inclusion into the community is the goal.

Classes for ages 7 and up include hip-hop, ballet and tap and there is a “Moving and Grooving” class for ages 2-7. Free to Be Me has studios in Long Beach and Orange County, and on the Westside.

Steps Toward Inclusion

Infinite Flow, a dance company in Sherman Oaks, is on a mission to increase access to quality dance instruction for people with disabilities in inclusive environments. Founder Marisa Hamamoto is intent on building a world-class professional dance company that includes dancers with and without disabilities  – some who use wheelchairs – as a vehicle to break stereotypes and perceived barriers.

kids with disabilities

Infinite Flow Dance Company in Sherman Oaks brings together standing dancers with dancers who use wheelchairs to create a unique, inclusive program. PHOTO COURTESY INFINITE FLOW

Hamamoto believes bringing ambulatory children and children who use wheelchairs together creates lessons for life. “Each person is different,” she says. “Disability is just another trait like short or tall. Infinite Flow values inclusion over disability and everyone is learning from each other.” Standing and wheelchair dancers perform together and function in equal roles whether it’s dance, public speaking or leadership. Hamamoto is working toward a world where inclusion is mainstream.

Infinite Flow (www.infiniteflowdance.org) classes are currently held in Sherman Oaks. Dancers learn ballroom and hip-hop. Members of Infinite Flow Kids are also given the opportunity to propose their own Infinite Flow projects, which have included fundraisers and choreographing their own dances.

Infinite Flow Kids is open to age 7 and up, though younger kids are admitted if they display maturity and ambition. The group is audition-only, and dancers must display rhythm and coordination and ability to take direction and include and cooperate with fellow dancers of varying abilities and backgrounds.

A Few Additional Programs

The number of Southern California programs that help kids with disabilities connect with their inner artist, dancer, musician or filmmaker is impressive and growing fast. Here are a few more to consider:

Able ARTS Work: This program – with studios in Long Beach, Gardena and Hawthorne – is dedicated to providing “lifelong learning, community service and vocational opportunities through the creative arts for people with disabilities of all ages in an environment of warmth, encouragement and inclusion.” In addition to day programming for adults with disabilities at its various locations, Able ARTS Work offers accessible arts workshops in schools and through community organizations, a Mobile Arts Program to bring creative arts therapy to people with disabilities who cannot attend a day program, a clinic that employs creative arts therapies for children with a variety of disabilities, and a vintage camper that brings pop-up inclusive arts and music workshops and exhibits to community events. The organization also hosts two community art galleries where artists of all abilities show their work.

The Music Therapy Wellness Clinic at CSUN: The clinic provides individually designed music activities for children and adults with a variety of disabilities, including developmental and learning disabilities, physical disabilities and mental and emotional disorders. The Rising Star Choir, geared toward children with autism, sings music of different styles as well as music that the choir members compose individually and as a group. Non-music goals such as socialization, self-esteem, attention to task and the creative process are also addressed. The Sunshine Singers is a music therapy group for young adults with a wide array of challenges that rehearses and performs as a choir. Learn more by calling 818-677-5663 or emailing csunmtwc@csun.edu.

Ballet for All Kids: This organization offers ballet training to all children regardless of ability. All are welcome to come and dance, including children with autism, learning and developmental disabilities, anxiety disorders, behavioral issues and ADHD. They also welcome children who are blind, deaf or non-ambulatory as well as typical children who would like a fun and relaxed way to learn ballet. They have locations in Agoura Hills and Encino.

Christine Romeo, Abbey Lutes’ mom, says a disability can often change your perspective on your child’s progress and what achievement looks like. “It slows you down to the mini miracles, like tying your shoe. But you eventually get to tying your shoe, even if it takes a year and a half,” she says. The arts can provide kids with opportunities for other mini miracles – and even major ones. And our creative community is ready, willing and able to help make them happen.

Donna Tetreault is Parenting Contributor at FOX 11. She is also a contributor for The Insider, the ‘Parents’ Guide’ on CBS and a Huffington Post blogger. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Andrew, and their two young sons.

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