One of the ways J.R. Hall bonded with his daughter Sophia at an early age was a mutual appreciation for documentaries.
“I would notice that, instead of watching Disney stories, a lot of times she would be snuggled up next to me watching documentaries, history shows, 'Frontline' and things on PBS,” he said. “And I thought it was kind of amusing. But then she started to ask questions and make observations that were really intelligent observations for a five-year-old.”
Once Sophia entered school, her teachers noticed she struggled to stay focused. She was diagnosed with ADHD and medication was recommended.
“The thought of [medication] horrified me because I thought maybe she would lose that special thing about her that that I loved,” he said.
Sophia’s diagnosis launched the idea for a musical being performed this weekend by Baldwin Whitehall High School students, titled “Normal-C.”
The show explores what it means to be normal and the lengths to which parents will go to make their children’s lives easier.
The parents of the musical’s three main characters – teenagers with disabilities – enroll their children in a clinical trial for a fictional drug called Normal-C. According to the drug's creator, Dr. Moloch, it is designed to “attack neurological disorders at the molecular level – working to regenerate faulty brain connections.”
Early in the musical, the parents note each child's unique traits. Chloe’s mom says her daughter is a talented painter; Ben’s father brags about his son’s musical abilities; and Eddie’s mom says he has a wonderful sense of humor.
Eddie is on the autism spectrum and is nonverbal. He clings to his mother, smiles and twirls a towel at his side. The character is largely inspired by Hall’s own 14-year-old son, Henry, who also has nonverbal autism.
“It’s a struggle because it's like if they conformed, it might make life easier, you know? But what are you denying your child by making them conform?” Hall said.
His wife, he said, tells people her son "has autism" rather than saying that he "is autistic.” Hall said he knows that is a way she expresses her hope that she can find a way to help her son speak.
“It's one of the things she had to sort of keep her going. That maybe that would be a cure or maybe there'd be some way to make it better,” he said.
Hall’s personal experience positioned him well to explore the concept of normalcy and embracing difference through a musical.
He is an adjunct theater and speech instructor at Community College of Allegheny County. He was asked to write the musical for the 30th anniversary of Beacon College in Florida – the first accredited school with a curriculum and support services specifically for students with learning disabilities.
When he visited the school with Jason Coll, who wrote the music for the show, the two asked a group of students whether, given the opportunity, they would take a magic pill that would make them neurotypical?
“Across the board, they all said, no, they wouldn't take it, that their disability is what made them unique and shaped how they learn, how they deal with the world," Coll said. "That's who they are."
In the musical, the fictional drug does change the teenagers. Eddie begins to speak. Chloe – who has dyslexia – has an easier time reading and developing social skills. However, the drug does affect her artwork.
Ultimately, the characters must decide whether to quit taking the pills.
Sophomore Abbey Stark plays Chloe. Her takeaway: There is no normal.
“It applies to everyone because everyone faces the struggle of social standards and trying to live up to that and just accepting the fact that you determine what’s normal in your eyes,” Stark said.
There are divisions in autism advocacy when it comes to finding a “cure” for neurological differences. The country’s largest autism advocacy group, Autism Speaks, for instance, has been criticized for focusing on “curing” autism-spectrum disorder. In 2016, it removed the word “cure” from its mission statement, according to the organization, in favor of personalized treatments.
Most recently, the group Autistic Self Advocacy Network distanced itself from the program “Sesame Street” after the show partnered with Autism Speaks. The show has featured a puppet on the autism spectrum since 2017. According to the Washington Post, ASAN accused Autism Speaks of using “language of acceptance and understanding to push resources that further stigmatize and treat autistic people as burdens on our families.”
Proceeds from the “Normal-C” musical will benefit Autism Speaks. Hall said he wasn’t familiar with the criticisms, and that the group was recommended to him by a colleague. Proceeds from performances of the show last year, at Baldwin Whitehall High School, benefited the school’s Special Olympics program.
Marissa Gallagher, supervisor of pupil services for the Baldwin Whitehall School District, said embracing difference is where the work sill lies in schools. In her years as a special education teacher she said she has seen a shift in attitudes, but it’s still an uphill battle to create a school culture that welcomes difference rather than seeing it as a deficit.
She’s worked in several local districts and said she has been impressed by the Baldwin Whitehall District’s inclusive practices. She said the Special Olympics Club is the highest-attended club in the high school.
"Normal-C" opens 7 p.m. Friday at the CCAC South Campus in West Mifflin. There are two additional shows Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m.