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Performing Arts Can Be a Miracle for Teens With Autism

Tristen Miller loves to sing. The high school senior, who attends a performing arts high school in Los Angeles, has performed at Carnegie Hall and the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, at the Rose Bowl and Anaheim Stadium and shared a stage with Ziggy Marley. Tristen, who has ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), is passionate not only about singing, but about sharing her talent with those around her.

“I love music so much,” she says. “Being on stage and performing makes me happy. It makes me happy to see the smiles on peoples faces.”

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Tristen got her first taste of performing in front of an audience with the Miracle Project, a theater and arts program started by Elaine Hall, a children’s acting coach for TV and film. Elaine developed the program after her own son was diagnosed with autism and found that traditional therapies were falling short. Her methods of teaching became the basis for the Miracle Project, and in 2008, Elaine and her students were the subjects of the Emmy-winning HBO documentary, "AUTISM:The Musical."

In an interview for mom.me, Elaine told me that one of her goals is to use performing as a way to shatter the stereotypes of people with autism. “There is a myth that individuals with autism do not show emotion, warmth or desire friendships. At The Miracle Project, we clearly demonstrate the opposite,” she stressed.

I asked her about the impact performing has on the students she works with, as well as on the audience. “The most important thing that the kids who have autism can take away from the productions and performances is a sense of accomplishment, self confidence and joy,” she said. “Being in a production is working together as a group, sharing positive emotional experiences and having to be responsible for others as well as yourself.”

“The audience can see that anything is possible—to see the abilities within the disabilities of every individual; and to live in acceptance and appreciation rather than judgment.”

Tristen is still involved with the Miracle Project, and credits its founder with nurturing her as an artist. “Elaine helps me connect to the meaning of songs when I sing, when acting, connecting to my character,” she says. “I learn how to have a positive relationship with my friends and have fun and I am more confident.”

We were told she would not be able to communicate appropriately, and watching her sing with her fellow students gives us such a feeling of gratitude.

Elaine says she recognized Tristen’s talent early on, and watched her grow as she worked with her through the Miracle Project. “Tristen was given a gift,” she said. “I've known her since she was a little girl—this tiny, beautiful little girl with this magnificent voice. Over the years I've seen her connect with her feelings and emotions in her singing as well as reach out and become much more social.”

After being told initially that their daughter would have problems communicating with others, Tristen’s parents Mark Miller and Maria Bonacci say performing has been key in helping her develop socially as well as academically. “There are no words to describe the pride we feel when we hear Tristen sing,” Maria says. “We were told she would not be able to communicate appropriately, and watching her sing with her fellow students gives us such a feeling of gratitude.”

“Tristen's vocal talents helped her bridge her educational setting from a special needs school into typical high school in the 9th grade,” Mark adds. “Her vocal skills have given her the confidence that she needs to interact socially with neurotypical peers.”

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Next up for Tristen: In a few weeks she will be performing before a few thousand people at Anaheim Stadium to open the Walk Now For Autism Speaks. After graduating in June she hopes to attend UCLA to continue her music studies, and she’ll continue to work hard towards her dream—to one day sing at the famed Paris Opera House.

She even has some advice for her peers who also sing, dance or act and might want to pursue a future in performing. “Relax, have fun, be flexible and love what you're doing,” she says. “Dreams do come true.”

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