A group of autistic children staged a large-scale musical production of ‘The Lion King’ and it was right here in Bangalore!
When Mohammad Abbas, a 15-year-old autistic student from the Bubbles Autism Center in Bangalore took the stage to portray ‘Scar’ in a musical adaptation of The Lion King, he sounded both malevolent and majestic, a tremendous feat given that autistic children often talk in monotones and without intonations.
For low-functioning autistic kids, performing in front of a large audience is a huge challenge. The sensory overload from the sounds and the lights is hard for them to handle but on 14th February 2016, Mohammad stood in front of almost 1000 people in Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore and played his role to the hilt. About a month before his performance, Mohammad had experienced severe social anxiety and would not take his hands off his mouth or even speak to anyone.
First large-scale play by autistic children
For possibly the first time, a group of 40 autistic children from the Bubbles Autism Center in Bangalore staged a musical production of The Lion King, which is a landmark in many ways. It is the first time that autistic children put up a public performance with fairly complex themes to a large crowd. On the day of the play, many children who had not been able to speak before stood on stage and delivered their lines perfectly, much to the astonishment of an overwhelmed and emotional audience.
Autism in India
Autism is a developmental disorder that starts during early childhood. Characterized by difficulty in social interaction, comprehension, communication and emotional regulation, it is still a huge stigma in India and many parents don’t even know about it by name. In 2013, the International Clinical Epidemiology Network estimated that 10 million children in India have autism to some degree.
To direct the play, Sarbani Mallick founder/director of the Bubbles Autism Centre, roped in Diana Tholoor, who had experience in training special needs children for performances. Her previous production of The Lion King for the Spastics Society of Karnataka featured children on calipers and wheelchairs. Tholoor’s approach was to conduct the class as if she were working with a regular group of children. “I talked to the children and explained things to them. I trained the actors in their script, taught them expressions and how to pick up sound and light cues.”
Each child in the production was given goals to accomplish through the medium of theatre – simple facial expressions, speech clarity or talking with intonation – tasks that to people outside the spectrum would seem ridiculously simple.
Autistic children cannot stay still and may cry when put in large groups. The teachers trained them to wait in silence for long periods of time and to be still, they taught them backstage discipline and other techniques. At a singular command – ‘quiet’ or ‘breathe’ – the children learned to independently take control of their anxiety and stress. Non-verbal children began to imitate the actors as they took the script. Each child was set goals and these goals were achieved through theatre.
What motivated them to do this
“Instead of handing out a report card at the end of the year, I wanted to get the children to use theatre to embrace a lack of structure,” says Sarbani. “For these kids, repetition and structure is important but life is not that way. The idea was to use theatre to teach children how to handle different sensory experiences.”
Astonishing stories from the production
Theatre and music bring out innate sensibilities in a child and teach them to be uninhibited. Music helped 30-year-old autistic Aditya Gaur to lose his awkward gait and dance beautifully to ‘Hakuna Matata’ when playing Pumba on stage. Ten-year-old Evalyn John who played Nahla had been known to bite and scratch herself when in distress. The teachers helped her to respond to verbal instructions by working on her again and again, to a point where she took her position as soon as her character’s name was called out.
Dr. Mohammad and the Hulk
For Mohammad, theatre helped to bring out his sense of pride and the need for social interaction. When he enrolled in the center more than three years ago, he had refused to enter the classroom. When he got the role of Scar, the instruction given to Mohammad was to “stand not like Mohammad but like a king.” This simple stage direction did something remarkable to Mohammad. He got drawn into his character so completely that he forgot to close his mouth. This is one of the many by-products of theatre when used with autistic children. In fact, in playing Scar, Mohammad got so immersed in his character when rehearsals were over that he would imagine he was indeed Scar and would use all of his lines from the play on his teachers and friends.
Sarbani decided to use this transposition of identities to Mohammad’s advantage. She made him grade his anger and emotions through cards illustrated with the transformation of a normal human being, ‘Dr. Mohammad,’ into the Incredible Hulk. The cards illustrated a doctor changing into the Hulk in five stages. When Sarbani would ask him where he was at the moment, he would tell her that he was at card number 3, which meant that he still had some anger left and would need to be left to himself for some time.
After the performance, Mohammad planned to celebrate all the hard work he had put in by going out for a coffee with Sarbani. “She promised to take me out for a coffee if I say my lines properly!”