Bringing Reilly To Life

By Christina Elston

special needs Reilly's Life

Writer Rita Zobayan, left, L.A. mom Sinead Clancy and animator Rob Silva discuss their plans to create an animated show about a little boy with autism. PHOTO COURTESY SINEAD CLANCY

“The life of Reilly” is an old-fashioned way of describing a life that is easy and pleasant. That’s not what Sinead Clancy thought she had in store when her son Roan, now 10, was 18 months old and his pediatrician told her that he had autism.

“I started Googling autism and trying to find out about it,” says Clancy, “and it was just this terrifying landscape of everything that was terrible and awful about this condition. There was never really anything positive about it.”

Clancy, who is raising Roan and his neurotypical twin sister, Katie, in the San Gabriel Valley, is hoping to change that with an animated show called “Reilly’s Life.”

The show stars Reilly, a young boy on the autism spectrum who has various adventures with his neurotypical twin sister, Kiara, and a toy giraffe named Gerry. Unlike Clancy’s son, Reilly is nonverbal, a twist Clancy and partner Rita Zobayan introduced on purpose. “We wanted to create a character that really hasn’t been seen before in that regard,” Clancy says. On the show, sister Kiara and Gerry the giraffe help the audience see things from Reilly’s perspective. “She becomes his voice in a lot of respects, and his little lovey, Gerry, becomes his voice in other respects,” says Clancy.

The characters are created using simple 2D animation, rather than stop-motion techniques, because Clancy has found that is what her son – and a host of families answering an extensive Facebook survey she created – respond to best. Reilly, Kiara and Gerry are also drawn with small eyes to make them more appealing to children who have trouble making eye contact.

special needs ReillyWhile Clancy’s inspiration came more than eight years ago, it is only during the past year that she set the wheels in motion to bring Reilly to life. She brought in Zobayan, who has spent 15 years as a life-skills teacher and counselor for students with special needs but recently turned her attention to writing, and hired animator Rob Silva to create the pilot. The team sought funding on Kickstarter (where the project was a staff pick), and raised $15,000 that will allow them to create an opening title sequence and 30 seconds of animation to show to potential investors.

Eventually, the team hopes to produce a series of episodes that each include nine minutes of animation with a one-minute live-action bumper at the end. The animation portion will feature a variety of topics, including one based on a real-life situation Clancy faced with Roan. “When my son was 2 ½ and 3 years of age, he would only wear shirts with stripes on them,” Clancy says. “And there was one morning, I’m trying to get him out the door to school, and there was no clean striped shirt.”

The live-action portion at the end of each episode will feature a family facing a similar situation to the one Reilly encounters. This is to offer parents and families some support strategies. “The animation part’s for the child; the bumper is really more for the adults,” Clancy says.

special needs KiaraThe 10-minute episode time keeps the show in line with preschool favorites such as “Dora the Explorer,” and the team hopes “Reilly’s Life” will appeal to neurotypical kids and their families as well. “I think it’s important for people who aren’t familiar with autism or don’t have someone in their family who is autistic to see a view of what that’s like,” says Zobayan. While autism is now familiar to most people, Zobayan says she still sees some misperceptions (“Why don’t they just make him wear a T-shirt without stripes? What’s the big deal?”) and believes a show like “Reilly’s Life” is a good opportunity to help educate.

While the eventual goal is to have the show available on a network such as PBS Kids, “Reilly’s Life” will begin as an online project. After the opening title and initial snippet of animation is done in September, those who have already contributed to the project via Kickstarter – and other potential investors – will get their first look.

Meanwhile the show’s website, www.reillyslife.com, includes a link to a Go Fund Me campaign to keep funding flowing in.

And everyone on the team is thinking positive. “The interest in the project has been overwhelming,” Clancy says. “It’s been so remarkable.” And this feedback is fueling her dream of creating an extensive website with resources, tips and games based on the show, somewhere people can turn for a positive view of life on the spectrum. “We’re not trying to make them better. We’re not trying to fix things,” says Clancy. “We’re just trying to say, Hey, this is how it is. What I would love to see happen, rather than just autism awareness, is autism acceptance.”

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