Health & Medicine

Autistic kids star in a new play — and documentary — from the United Arab Emirates

It's a very simple and sweet play. Every character is a different color. They fight and clash, but, in the end, they learn that they're much stronger if they work as a team.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

That's the plot behind a musical that Tricia Regan staged in the Middle East, with a cast of autistic children. Of course, the play — and its accompanying documentary — hold a deeper message about kids and disability in the United Arab Emirates.

In 2008, Regan made a documentary about children with autism in the US called "Autism: The Musical." It was based on a similar idea, of using autistic kids to stage a production, and it was very well-received, was shortlisted for an Academy Award and won a couple of Emmies.

The royal family of the United Arab Emirates saw it and approached Regan. They asked her if she could make a documentary about autism in their country to bring discussion of it into the open.

"They wanted to raise awareness because there is a real issue in their culture with kids with disability of any kind. They tend to hide them away and it brings shame upon the family," Regan says.

While that's not the case with every family, she says, it is how people with disabilities are generally treated.

At first, Regan was hesitant about accepting the new proposal. She says she didn't want to become known as "the autism filmmaker."

But as she visited different centers for autistic kids in the UAE, she saw many kids who were suffering from a lack of intervention. And that's when she knew she had to make the film.

"I know the difference I can make with a film," she says. "And how often are you really called to make a difference? And when you are called, how do you really say no?"

First, she had to find families who were willing to participate in the documentary. That wasn't easy. She sent fliers through 30 different organizations in Abu Dhabi and Dubai — 52 people got back to her.

Then she interviewed every kid in order to come up with a smaller list. Regan was looking to create a group that both reflected racial diversity and included kids across the autism spectrum. Families also had to be willing to go on camera.

In general, autism affects more boys than girls, Regan says, so that made the pool of available girls smaller. And on top of that, Arab families are very protective of girls.

"It's a cultural issue. Having a daughter or a wife on camera feels like it's disrespectful," she says. Only one Emirati mother accepted to be on camera.

Another challenge was finding teachers to work with the autistic kids.

"There is nobody in the UAE who teaches theater and has experience working with kids with autism," Regan says. She was the one who had spent the most time with autistic kids. So she enlisted the help of a few college students as volunteers and taught them how to work with the kids.

"Kids with autism are so different. Routine is so important to them. They need a lot of breaks and they have a lot of sensory issues," she says.

At first, it was difficult for the teachers and students, as well as their families, to be motivated and learn to work as a team. But as time went on, things started to improve.

"In the end, [the teachers] really learned and they were so loving towards the kids. And I've never seen a group of kids with autism so happy in my life as they were, when they were running in this theater program."

In all, Regan says, it was an incredible experience.

"In the end, as different as we all are around the world, there's no difference in how a parent loves their child. This same story can be told anywhere in the world, because anywhere in the world, you have a parent who is pulling their hair out because they don't know what to do with their autistic child," she says.

The documentary is scheduled to be released in the fall.

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