8-year-old with Keizer’s autism ‘thrives’ in Pentacle play

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Pamela Abernethy was finishing her makeup backstage when Simon Watson burst into the room.

“Sorry, we’re late,” he said, rushing over to put on his costume.

One by one, the rest of the Pentacle Theater cast of “Mothers and Sons” arrived, delayed by traffic heading into West Salem.

Wednesday’s show was going to start shortly, but there was still time for Simon and Abernethy to do their chores. The co-stars walked into the lobby, picked up supplies, and began their nighttime cleaning ritual.

“Mothers and Sons” follows Abernethy’s character Katharine Gerard, whose son died of AIDS. In the story, years later, she visits the former partner of her late son, who is now married and has a young son, Bud Ogden-Porter, played by Simon.

Simon Watson finishes donning his costume at the Pentacle Theater in Salem on October 30.

The character of Abernethy finds himself in uncharted territory and out of place in their home. Yet the character of Simon, without pause, treats her with kindness.

This relationship is at the heart of “Mothers and Sons”, but it hasn’t always been natural for Abernethy and Simon. When they had their first reading, she said Simon wouldn’t watch her.

Maintaining eye contact and other social communication can be difficult for people with the autism spectrum.

“As he progressed… he started to really look at me and understand me,” Abernethy said. “It’s amazing that an 8 year old can maintain his level of integrity and intensity.

“You just look into his eyes and you just feel consumed by his light energy.”

A notable change

Simon’s parents, Jeffrey and Amanda Watson, said being in production resulted in “undeniable growth” for their son.

Jeffrey said he was approached by several staff at Gubser Elementary School who said Simon had a series of “very good days.”

Simon's parents Amanda and Jeffrey Watson talk to him about how he memorizes the lines of the play

Simon being an autistic child in a regular classroom can sometimes lead to a “hard day”. Jeffrey and Amanda had to work with the teachers to come up with strategies and steps to keep Simon from getting too frustrated in the past.

He’s used to hearing that Simon is ‘doing well’ at school, so being approached by more than one staff member expressing that Simon ‘is doing really well’ – like being on task. , doing his job and interacting well with his peers – stood out. .

Both of his parents have also noticed a positive change at home, particularly in the way he interacts with his siblings, Oliver, 10, and Eleanor, 6.

“He’s just happier,” Amanda said. “I wonder if (being on the show) scratched an itch that he had that we just didn’t know.”

The growth they saw prompted Jeffrey to write an article for the Pentacle Facebook page.

Theater can be intimidating for anyone, he said, but they wanted to share Simon’s story so other parents who have kids on the spectrum can see its potential benefits.

Join Pentacle’s “Mothers and Sons”

Jo Dodge didn’t think he could find a child to play Bud Ogden-Porter.

The director, who has been involved with Pentacle for over 40 years, considered changing the character’s age. He’s only mentioned once in the series that he’s 6 years old.

Jeffrey and Amanda were both cast in the musical “Gypsy” when Dodge directed it to Pentacle in 2007. She contacted and asked if any of their sons would be interested in auditioning for the role.

Oliver has been on productions in the past, but was indifferent to this show, Amanda said. But Simon wanted him and they decided to let him audition and see how it went.

Simon Watson, an 8-year-old from Keizer, playing the role of Bud Ogden-Porter in "Mothers and sons"at the Pentacle Theater.  The show runs until November 9.

Any fear they may have as parents – worrying about how others will react to Simon or that something isn’t going well – is no reason not to let him do something, said Amanda. The risk of it not going well is nothing compared to the reward when it does.

“When we got our reading it was just ridiculous,” Dodge said. “(He) read with intent – the whole thing.”

Simon’s first experience on stage was a bit accidental. After taking the stage during a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that her brother was in, the director decided to create the role of “Wandering Fairy,” Amanda said. In 2017 he played Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol”.

“Mothers and Sons” is a 90-minute production with no intermission and only four characters. Bud’s fathers were played by Clyde Berry and Taylor Husk, both of whom formed special bonds with Simon throughout the show.

Husk spent a good portion of every show behind the scenes with Simon to help him stay calm or quiet between scenes. He said it is rare for children in the theater to take the lead as well as Simon.

“If he has something he needs to work on, like slowing down his lines, if he needs to calm his body … one of his parents (or I) will try to find a way to explain it to him,” he said. said Husk. . “Next time, we’ll see him apply what we’ve taught him on stage.”

Amanda said Simon gets along well with adults because they are generally predictable and behave as he expects, which can be helpful for people on the spectrum.

They believe that the consistency and repetition of the theater might be why acting had such a positive effect on him.

Find a seat in the theater

The theater was not the first after-school program in which Simon’s participated.

He’s been involved in other activities, including baseball and swimming, but the stress of competing can be overwhelming, Jeffrey said.

Part of their occupational therapy involves playing games together to help them learn to cope with the stress of losing.

“I realized that’s kind of the key to the theater – it’s a team, but it’s not a team versus another team,” he said. “You’re up there and doing your best with the others, but someone else having a really good night’s sleep is doing nothing to deprive you of your… night.”

Jeffrey and Amanda met in college when they were on the same stage production. They hoped their children would be interested in theater, but did not want to force it on them.

Seeing Simon thrive through experience was ‘affirmative’.

A pilot study published by the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2015 followed 30 young people aged 8 to 14 to see how participation in theater affected them. The results revealed that children with autism spectrum disorders improved their social, communication and memory skills.

Since he’s been on the show, Simon has been able to better express his feelings and perspective. This helped his siblings understand him better, said Jeffrey, and made it easier for them to intervene in conflict.

“I wonder if it’s because in a situation where (the director) says, ‘I want you to be confused. When you are confused you say things like that and you act like that.'” -he declares. “He’s able to identify with himself when he sees himself acting that way.”

The director and the cast of "Mothers and sons" circles together just before showtime at the Pentacle Theater in Salem on October 30.

Simon said he liked being in “Mothers and Sons” because he liked being on stage and spending time with the actors. People telling him that they liked his performance made him feel “so appreciated”.

“It feels good as a parent to have something your child enjoys doing,” Amanda said. “He’s not limited in what he can do because of his diagnosis.”

Abby Luschei is the arts and entertainment reporter for the Statesman Journal and can be reached at [email protected] or 503-399-6747. Follow her on Twitter @abbyluschei or facebook.com/luscheiabby. To support its work, consider subscribing.

Interested in telling about one of the upcoming Salem Storytellers Project events? Submit your story: www.storytellersproject.com/tell.

Simon Watson, an 8-year-old from Keizer, playing the role of Bud Ogden-Porter in "Mothers and sons"at the Pentacle Theater.  The show runs until November 9.

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