Ken Smith/Turnagain Times
Jeff and Elaine Hall are the parents of an autistic child adopted from Russia. They were involved in an award winning documentary about autism and she wrote a book “Now I See The Moon.”
By Paddy Notar
Turnagain Times Correspondent
When her adopted 23-month-old child got off of the airplane that brought him from Russia, Elaine Hall was excited. She was about to start a life with her new son. But Elaine had no idea that she was about to take on a journey that would change her life and the lives of so many others.
As he grew older, Elaine noticed that her son Neal wasn’t responding to her or communicating the way most children do with their parents. It was later discovered that Neal had autism.
“I was in denial when the problem was discovered,” said Hall. “Most parents are in denial and most don’t even want to go through the process of finding out. Then I realized my child is going to have autism for his entire life. I just wanted to help him live in this world the best way possible.”
Elaine is an acting coach in Los Angeles by profession. She’s currently in Anchorage working on a children’s movie, and she and her husband agreed to meet with me at the movie set during their lunch break to discuss what she calls the “Miracle of Autism.”
We first met at a documentary she was a part of, Autism: The Musical, which was shown at the Bear’s Tooth earlier that week.
Elaine started by talking about how she became frustrated by how her adopted son was being treated by the medical field.
“If I didn’t do something, he would have been put in an institution,” she said. So, Elaine asked for the help of Dr. Stanley Greenspan from Maryland, who believes that people need to enter the world of their autistic child in order to better understand their needs.
Dr. Greenspan’s philosophy was for parents and friends to play along with the autistic child’s behavior instead of getting frustrated with it. He taught Elaine that by doing this you are able to connect to your child’s world and grow as a family.
“I learned that when they act out, they’re actually communicating with you in their own unique way,” Elaine said.
She went on to give an example.
“When we would walk down the street, Neal would stop at the first parked car he saw and would stare at the tires,” she said. “It drove me crazy because he wouldn’t move. He would just stare. Finally, I looked at what he was looking at and noticed that he was looking at a reflection of himself and the sunlight. Once he knew that I noticed it, he moved on. It was his way of communicating to me.”
Elaine created “The Miracle Project” in 2005, which focuses on helping parents to better understand and communicate with their autistic children.
In 2007, she and Jeff got married and the process of introducing their autistic child to extended family members began.
“Why won’t he behave?” was often asked when Neal would visit Jeff’s relatives. Jeff comes across as a loving dad who is willing to do anything for their child. He’s one of those great guys you rarely get to meet.
With all of her connections in Hollywood, Elaine and Jeff gathered the support of their friends to put together the documentary discussing the issues that they faced on a daily basis.
“I decided one day that deep within my heart I needed to do this,” Elaine said. “I needed to help everyone who faces the challenges of autism. I stopped what I was doing and focused on this completely.”
Elaine networked with Hollywood friends who worked in the film industry and gathered the money and talent necessary to create Autism: The Musical, which highlights children with autism putting on a play where they act, sing, and dance. The documentary was filmed for six months in 2006 and was produced in part by Kristen Stills, the wife of musician Steven Stills, who also has an autistic child.
The documentary centers on several families and their autistic children as they work with other autistic children and families to produce their own musical production on stage.
I had the pleasure of viewing it at a special screening held at the Bear Tooth. People laughed and cried throughout the film. It showed the pain and joy that parents go through when dealing with the challenges of raising an autistic child.
“No matter what, the best attribute is how loving and honest they are. I have parents that ask me to teach their child how to lie,” she said laughing. “They’re the most honest people you’ll ever meet. Sometimes too honest.”
The documentary was first shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007. HBO, through Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham later bought the rights to it in 2008. That same year it won two Emmys including best Outstanding Non-Fiction Special. It also won Best Documentary at numerous film festivals around the country.
Tricia Regan was the director and Elaine attributes her with helping to make it a success.
“There are so many people to thank that it would take me all day to name them,” she said. It was also chosen by the United Nations to honor World Autism Awareness Day.
Elaine was invited to meet the U.N. Secretary General and said it was one the greatest moments of her life. Since then, she has also written a book called, Now I See the Moon, which is available at Barnes and Noble and has received critical acclaim.
There’s also talk of following the documentary with a feature film and a television show, but Elaine and Jeff remain focused on their son Neal, who is now 17.
I asked her how he was doing since she and Jeff have been in Alaska for two months working on the movie.
“He’s living with 24-hour support – but independently,” she said with a proud smile. “He does the laundry, cooks, and takes out the trash. With intervention and a lot of love, Neal has become 100 percent a part of this world.”