Why teach yoga to kids with autism? I am not motivated to do it out of pity, or feeling sorry for them. I work with these kids because I find them genuinely fascinating and mostly fun to be around.

How did I get involved with these special needs kids? It is almost as if I were predestined.

In this first of several postings I will introduce an example of rich living that one would not ordinarily consider. It involves three unsung heroes: Tony, Sally and Bernie.

When I was ten I started to sing with a small opera company. One of the company members, Bernie, a tenor, was very odd. He had a degree in music from a city college, but he had terrible social skills. He wasn’t “retarded” as it was known then, nor “emotionally disturbed” to use another common term. He was a bit of a savant when it came to opera and baseball. He could be charming and he could be extremely vindictive at times, which in hindsight was clearly understandable–he was terribly mistreated by most people, I among them at times.

He had a high opinion of his voice, which was actually weird and terrible. It was difficult to tell if his acting was brilliant or if it was just that his strange personality was suited to the strange sort of characters that are called “comprimario” roles in opera–creepy henchmen, dirty old men, unsuitable suitors, low-lifes, madmen.

When we first saw him as Monostatos, the Moor slave master in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, my mother thought his character voice and acting were brilliant. Later, we came to know that the creepy comic nature of the role were a match to his actual voice and personality. To his credit, he performed with total passion and commitment, so he often came off convincing. However, he would forever only be a appropriate for a certain character voice and a certain kind of character on stage.

No problem. Many have made careers by playing themselves on stage and celluloid, as long as they were properly cast. I think for example of someone like Morty Feldman of the Mel Brooks movies fame.  (Hasn’t Charlie Sheen been doing just this of late?) Even in opera, there are those who become their characters through their versatile acting and who perform a huge num, such as tenor Placido Domingo, versus those who play themselves in every role

Looking back, Bernie was probably undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. Like many with this syndrome before it had a name, Bernie learned to cope his own way, without a diagnosis, treatment and services. Bernie was hurt by those around him much more than he hurt others. Most people treated him with contempt; his saviors were Tony and Sally Amato, founders and directors of the Amato Opera Theater, a shoebox sized opera company in what is now known as the East Village in Manhattan.

I cannot go on without mentioning Bernie’s positive attributes–he was caring, sometimes affectionate to me, passionate about his interests such as opera and baseball, diligent, dependable, prompt. He took took responsibility, and was devoted to his parents and employers.

Sadly, due to his strange personality and poor hygiene, his kindnesses were typically not reciprocated. He could be hot and cold. When I was a child, he would be affectionate with me, but when I tried to avoid him, he would lash out. Bernie would have favorite kids, but could be very nasty with most of the kids in the children chorus. When I became a teenager, he felt threatened as Tony and Sally trained me to do some of the things that were his responsibilities backstage, such as pulling the curtain, and some that they would not entrust him to, such as light cues.

As far as I could tell, Bernie’s parents, though they loved him, were mystified about what to do with him. His condition was not understood at all at the time and has only recently received compassionate attention in neurology, psychology, therapy and education. Perhaps his mother had been accused of being a “refrigerator Mom” at a time when it was common to blame the mother for their “emotionally disturbed” children that we now recognize to be on the autism spectrum.

Tony and Sally gave Bernie the gift to live richly with opera.

The only real affection and love I saw him receive was from Tony and Sally Amato who accepted him as he was, understood his limitations, and did what they could to help his socialization. They gave him a true home where he could perform and stage manage operas full-time–doing what he loved–and debating about each day’s baseball game, ballplayer trade and sports gossip. Accepted him as he was–my first experience with someone modeling “meeting someone where they are” as we say in today’s yoga.

Tony and Sally were my greatest teachers of generosity of spirit. They were the king and queen of the second chance. And the third chance, and the fourth, and so on… It was very rare that I ever saw them give up on someone who had failed at something they set out to do.

I am reminded of the story of the monk who is asked what goes on in the monastery, to which he replies, “We fall down and get up. We fall down and get up. We fall down and get up.” The best mentors know how to give permission to risk failure and try again.

In my case, there was my “almost Phantom of the Opera moment” the time I accidentally released the chandelier cable while I was pulling the curtain. The brass chandelier plunged down fifteen feet and nearly clocked the prima donna, Sally Amato, who was taking her bow at the footlights during curtain calls. Sally was under five feet. If she had been a foot taller, she would have been in an ambulance. Tony and Sally never took me off of curtain duty.

Another time, I turned up the dimmer for the house lights past the mark at intermission. I blew the circuit breakers and blacked out the whole theater for two minutes until Tony could reset them. I blew light cues, dropped scenery, broke lighting equipment, and my favorite: “mugged” on stage (overacting)–and each time Tony and Sally gave me another chance. In another theater I might have been dismissed for any of these mistakes.

Tony and Sally taught me that everyone deserves respect and kindness even if you do not understand their behavior. They did not judge by outward appearances, and they always saw the potential in those who seemed without. I can’t imagine what kind of life Bernie would have led if he had not been part of the Amato Opera.

As it was, Bernie probably worked more than any professional actor in opera or theater in New York City. He performed onstage two to five times each week for over forty years. His life was voice lessons, theater care-taking, preparing roles, handling props and scenery, and of course, performing. He was surrounded daily by great music, creative and interesting people, and two special loving “parents.”

Tony and Sally gave Bernie a rich life with opera.

(to be continued)

NEXT TIME: How yoga helps kids with autism live rich lives

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