Today I am excited to post Part 1 of a new series of posts written by my smart and funny friend, Jen Dodson. Jen’s precious son, "M," is a professional actor who also happens to live with Asperger’s Syndrome and is only 8-years-old. When I put out a call for new contributors several weeks ago, Jen reached out to me because she wondered if other families might be interested in how drama and acting have significantly improved her son's life. I know you’ll be inspired and encouraged after reading this guest series. Please help me welcome Jen to AutismSpot today for Part 1 in this fascinating series of posts!
Professional Acting with Asperger’s Syndrome: Part 1
By Jennifer Dodson
My eight year old son was diagnosed at the age of four with an Autism Spectrum Disorder called Asperger Syndrome. When my husband and I read that Asperger’s is often called the “Little Professor” Syndrome we had our big “ah ha” moment. Our son was already able to read at four years old and he had the vocabulary of a third grader. He was very bright and extremely articulate. A Neuropsychologist back then once timed M’s ability to hold a conversation outside of his obsession with Transformers. It was only three to four seconds that he was able to “talk” to another person. M was unable to look anyone in the eye or understand that other people did not know what he knew, cared what he cared about or felt things that he did not feel. In his world everyone he met loved Transformers and knew everything he did about the Autobots and Decepticons.
When I think back to the years of weekly occupational therapy and constant work on M's “social skills” or lack thereof, it amazes me of what M is capable of now. My son who once could not hold any sort of meaningful conversation is now able to walk into a room of strangers and audition for commercials, television and movies. My son is a professional actor with Asperger Syndrome.
When M was six years old he saw the movie Bolt and began a fascination with Hollywood. He started saying he wanted to be in movies. As anyone familiar with Autism Spectrum Disorders knows, once a child decides that they are interested in something it often becomes an “intense interest.” I heard about a local Children’s Theater that promised a part to any child that auditioned. What a fail proof way to let him try acting. The theater was auditioning for their upcoming production of A Christmas Carol. We went armed with the Pledge of Allegiance and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star like their website recommended for kids his age. I warned M that he may end up being a tree in the play but he didn’t care. We arrived at the theater and kids were called up in small groups to audition. I watched in silent horror as some kids pulled out CD’s to accompany their songs or sang duets with their parents. I couldn’t let my child go up there and sing Twinkle Twinkle! I told him he could perform whatever he wanted. Heck, sing the Transformer’s song for all I cared. He went up and sang part of ‘Thank You for the Music’ off of the Mama Mia soundtrack I had been listening to in the car. I didn’t even know he knew the song. He was awesome, cute, and funny and had no fear on that stage. M was cast not as a tree, but as Tiny Tim. He did a fabulous job and really enjoyed the two months he spent on the production. He was the only member of the Cratchet family with a British accent (because they were supposed to be from London so Tiny Tim had to have an accent according to M) and that was okay because he was just so adorable saying his lines. I remember at the time the Director asked me if M would be able to memorize his lines. He had no problem memorizing them the first evening we were given the script. It was then that we realized M had a near photographic memory and can memorize any script he is given after reading his lines just once or twice! (He has the ability to do that with any book as well).
At the same time he was in the play an opportunity to submit for a Chuck E Cheese photo shoot came his way. M was chosen for the shoot and really enjoyed himself. He had a bit of sensory over-load while in the noisy ticket blaster but he was hooked. Between performing on stage and then being paid for a photo shoot at Chuck E Cheese, M wanted to do more. I started researching and found the handful of reputable Talent Agencies in Dallas, close to home. I submitted to a couple of the agencies online with some photos and a couple of YouTube links of M. We were called two days later by one of the agencies and we went in for an interview. She took M to a room by himself to talk. When they returned she told me that he informed her he has Asperger Syndrome and asked what it meant for him. I honestly had never heard M even say Asperger Syndrome, nor did I know he was aware he had it. Of course my son would decide to share his diagnosis for the first time in front of a Talent Agent! I told her that it made him who he was. He was articulate, bright and unique. I told her that if she wanted him to do math or writing he might not do so well - but since that is not a prerequisite for acting – we were in the clear. She signed him on the spot and he started going on auditions.
M has been told that he is a naturally gifted actor. He is especially great at emotional roles. He can cry on cue and loves when he can scream and yell for a part. It is amazing to me that he can read a script and understands what his character is supposed to feel. He can understand what the other characters are supposed to feel. When he is in his actor mode he is in tune with others. Most of all he is able to listen and react to what the other characters are saying and doing. Acting is mostly the ability to react and for an ASD child that is hard to do. Put him back into the school setting and he misses all sorts of verbal and non-verbal cues. It is amazing to watch the transformation that happens when he is acting.
Next week read the story about the time M announced his Asperger’s Syndrome during an audition while on the news!
Jennifer Dodson is a mom-manger extraordinaire who lives with her husband and two sons in Dallas, Texas. Jennifer spends her days managing her oldest son M's budding acting career. M loves to build with LEGOS, reads and plays video games when not working or auditioning for TV and film. M is eight years old and happens to also have Asperger's Syndrome. C is five years old and in preschool. C loves to sing, dance and play the Wii. Jennifer is also the Vice President of her son's Elementary school PTO and works hard to advocate for his needs in the educational setting.