Red Kite Round Up is a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience
tailored specifically to the needs of children with autism. Actors
offer a multi-sensory camping adventure that encourages children to
move, laugh, talk and sing. Unlike most traditional live theater
performances, at Red Kite Round Up children are encouraged to
participate in the show and interact with the artists. The actors
are specially trained to be responsive to each child's individual
needs as they guide him or her through the performance.
After filling out an application on Red Kite Round Up's website, each child and adult is sent a
detailed Social Story-a preview of the show that walks children
through the experience of attending, from arriving at the location
to the people they'll meet to the adventure itself. The parents'
Social Story serves as a guide for prospective attendees so they
can gauge the appropriateness of the experience for their children
and minimize potential anxiety.
Fourteen years ago, Jacqui Russell was looking for
a teacher to work in a local classroom with children who have
autism. When she couldn't find one, she decided to take the
assignment herself. Out of that dilemma, Red Kite Round Up, a
theater program specifically geared toward children with autism,
After discovering a theater company in England created for
children who are profoundly disabled, Russell, the artistic
director and co-founder of the Chicago Children's Theatre, which
runs the Red Kite program, headed to England to train with the
troupe Oily Cart.
"I asked Oily Cart to bring their show here," she
remembers. "But they said no, we'll teach you how to do it
Russell came back to the United States determined to create
theater for the disabled; four years ago she started Red Kite Round
Up. But rather than focus on all disabilities, like Oily Cart, she
decided to focus primarily on children with autism.
"As a community, they have a hard time doing anything
public," she says. "Oftentimes these kids are high-functioning
intellectually, but not socially."
What Russell created was a theater experience where
children are free to be who they are, and parents can sit back and
enjoy a show where their child isn't ostracized.
At a recent show, children from Joseph Sears School in
Kenilworth District 38 joined the actors onstage, exploring their
guitars and the stage props. The kids were encouraged to get up and
touch lightning bugs (puppets) and lay on a blanket to search the
The actors have been trained to work with children with autism,
and the show is designed to engage without overwhelming. Everything
from subdued stage lighting to small audience groups to invitations
mailed to the children ahead of time is targeted toward making this
a positive experience.
"I think the best part for my students was that they were
able to just be themselves and enjoy the experience, because the
actors were so good at anticipating their needs and adjusting the
situation to work with them," says Myra Goodrich, a student
services teacher at Sears school who attended the production with
Goodrich especially liked that the experience was
multisensory, rather than the more passive learning typical of a
field trip to a museum.
Now more children will have access to Red Kite, as it expands
from its start in Chicago to include shows in the suburbs. It has
also headed north-to Canada. Russell was asked by the State
Department to be a cultural envoy and bring her program over the
border. She worked with a theater troupe there, guiding them as
they created their own script. She hopes the program continues to
"It makes you feel rewarded and sad at the same time. You
imagine how many families are living like this, like refugees," she
says. "For me as a parent, that was motivation to create a safe
place to have a joyful experience."
Liz DeCarlo is the former senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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