Schreiber Pediatric Center - An aspiring actor with Down syndrome

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March 11, 2015

An aspiring actor with Down syndrome

Posted by Dan  Permalink 

When I saw that Alex Johanning wanted to be an actor when he grew up, I was intrigued. Alex has Down syndrome, and there aren't many professional actors with Down syndrome, that I know of. (Of course, I didn't know about this.) I wanted to find out more, so I watched Alex during one of his acting classes at the Fulton Theatre and talked to his mom, Lisa.

Alex and a fellow student do a role-playing exercise during a recent acting class at the Fulton Theatre.

***
Inside one of the Fulton's classrooms, Alex is one of a half-dozen or so kids seated around a circle on small carpet squares. Teacher Amy Kaye Mullen runs the kids through a series of acting exercises.

When it's time to be a fish or an alligator, he jumps right in. When it's his turn in a role-playing exercise, he grasps the idea and gives it his best shot. No big deal.

This is what he wants to do, Lisa says.

"He doesn't really play with toys much," she says. "He's very imaginative and does a lot of acting in his play. We'll watch a movie, and he'll say the lines and act it out right along with the movie."

She saw the Fulton was offering acting classes, so she called Jennifer Ridgway, the Fulton's director of community engagement. Lisa told her about Alex, and Jennifer said to come in for a meeting.

"We took him in, and it was like a little audition," she says. "(She tells Alex), 'Can you be a fish.' So he did a couple fish things" -- and Lisa points her hands in front of her to mimic swimming -- "and she says, 'See you next Saturday.'"

Having kids like Alex in the Fulton's acting classes is part of the theater's effort to provide inclusive experiences for the community, Ridgway says. It's the same thinking that prompted the Fulton to partner with Schreiber in offering sensory-friendly programming.

In the past year, it added Sugey Cruz-Everts from the Tommy Foundation to its Community Engagement Advisory Board. The Tommy Foundation is a nonprofit that provides support for families with an autistic child.

That could lead to new programs to serve the autism community, Ridgway says.

For the Johannings, an acting class is more than just a fun activity for Saturday mornings. They drop off and leave, which they had never done before (Mom was a little nervous). And maybe more importantly, the classes support their strategies to continue his social and emotional development.

"He learns to follow the rules of the session: We greet our friends; we listen to the teacher; we follow directions," she says.

Like a lot of parents of children with special needs, Lisa worries about how he would make friends and whether kids would be mean.

For her, having Alex in acting classes with typical kids and mainstreaming him in public school have helped break down the obstacles that might otherwise have existed in his efforts to socialize.

"When we were in school, kids like Alex were in special ed," she says. "We didn't see them. (Alex) is making friends here and in school. He's growing up with them. He's just one of the kids."

Feeling like he's just one of the kids will make a huge difference as he grows into adulthood and starts chasing that acting dream.

And that is a big deal.

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