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When the phone rings inside the Brown home, 12-year-old Joshua picks it up and says hello in a clear, direct voice. When he learns that the speaker is a writer wanting to talk to his dad about the new Arts For Us program offered by Harris Studios, he mentions matter-of-factly that he named the program.
Joshua, like a roughly estimated 500 to 600 Shasta County children, is impacted by autism, a developmental delay that affects people socially and emotionally. These young people often struggle to find extracurricular programs that can accommodate their unique styles of learning and relating.
Arts For Us, a music and performing arts education program designed by Harris Studios founder Trish Harris and Joshua’s father, Robert Brown, is launching March 18. It is designed specifically for North State children ages 9-19 on the autistic spectrum.
“These kids are incredibly talented, but because of their learning and developmental challenges, they can struggle being in social environments and group settings that involve a lot of focus and awareness of social cues,” Harris said. “They need their own atmosphere to do performing arts and express themselves.”
In addition to private vocal and instrumental lessons, the Redding-based Harris Studios offers acting classes and spring and summer theater arts camps for young artists. Trish said her heart went out to her students with autism. “They want a place to be themselves but don’t always fit in,” she said. “I wanted to make a space especially for them.”
This was about two years ago. At the same time, Joshua’s parents had been struggling to find music instructors to work with their son, who loves to sing and is able to play songs by ear on the piano.
“The teachers are used to dealing with neurotypical kids who can better take instruction,” Brown said. “We’d been looking and trying and almost given up on it when I met Trish. She told me her vision, and it matched perfectly the paradigm I wanted for my son.”
Brown, who is a grant writer, and Harris began working to create a program that would qualify for funding through the Far Northern Regional Center, a state-funded organization that helps individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.
Harris wanted to create an affordable program for these families, many of whom have made the choice for one parent to be a full-time caregiver for their child with autism. By designing a program that meets the state’s strict design and funding requirements, Harris Studios is able to offer Far Northern’s clients a fully funded arts program for children with autism. (The program is also available to other special needs students besides those registered with the center. Those not registered with Far Northern can contact Brown through Harris Studios about tuition fees.)
“I’m so thrilled and relieved,” Harris said. “It’s been a long, long process. I’m especially excited for these kids.”
Brown estimated he has 25 to 30 iterations of the program on his computer – “we kept pushing and making revisions,” he said. Final approval was granted in January.
One of the reasons it took so long to create and revise the program is because it is unique, Harris said. “To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing like this offered in Northern California,” she said.
Brown echoed that. “Programs (for children with autism) don’t exist here. We have to be innovative and find things that resonate with our kids,” he said. “For me, this is a start. Arts For Us is about helping these children have a full life.”
Arts For Us got its name from Joshua, who was listening to his parents brainstorm ideas one day he watched football. The program’s original name was Arts For Autism, but for funding approval, it needed to be available for anyone, Brown said.
“We were talking, Arts for this or that, and Joshua spoke up and said, ‘I like Arts for Autism. I don’t know why we can’t have arts for us.’ And a lightbulb went on,” he said.
Students in the program will learn singing, drama, movement, musicality and social inclusion skills. The 12-week course will meet weekly and include a talent showcase, open to the public, at the end of each session. Classes will be capped at nine students, with one teacher per three students.
Milinda Taylor, an artistic director who has worked for Walt Disney, will be the lead instructor; she is joined by vocal instructor and music therapy specialist Carrie Grosch and piano instructor and music director Rebekah Proctor.
As the program gets established, students will be placed in groups corresponding to students will be placed in groups corresponding to their music and performing arts experience as well as their special needs requirements.
Brown hopes Arts For Us will do more than just empower the young people who participate.
“So much of the tragedy of autism – and it is both glorious and tragic – is how it affects the family unit,” he said. “I see this program as a way of bringing some hope back into their lives.”
To learn more about Arts For Us, contact program coordinator Robert Brown at (530) 515-7151 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.