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Yough High School hosts musical event for autistic students

| Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 11:44 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Yough High School band director Don Green gets some assistance from his son William, 8, a student at West Newton Elementary, during a Christmas concert at the high school on December 19, 2013.

Natalie Piscar enthusiastically beat a drum at Yough High School on Thursday, making noise that was music to her ears in the chaos of other students playing percussion instruments at the end of a special holiday band concert.

“I really like it,” Piscar said of the holiday music performed by the school's 60-member concert band. “I liked the different sounds of the music.”

Piscar, of Jeannette, is a ninth-grade student at the Northwestern Human Service School in Herminie. The school provides educational services for children with autism spectrum disorder, which is a group of complex disorders of brain development characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication.

Piscar, about 35 fellow students from the NHS School and a similar number of learning-support students from Yough schools were permitted to dance, sing, shout and walk around the auditorium during the “autism- friendly” concert, as well as play the percussion instruments and take the stage at the end of the show.

“They work hard every day to adapt to the world they are placed in. It's about time the world adapt to them one day. We want them to enjoy it as they want to enjoy it,” said Yough High School band director Donald Green, who is cognizant of the challenges of what he calls the “special learners.”

His 8-year-old son, William, a student at West Newton Elementary School, has autism. William joined his father in directing the band at the end of the concert.

The NHS School does not have a band program, “so this (concert) is a chance these students won't get,” said Green, who hopes to conduct a similar concert next year.

The performance by the concert band was “promoting the general inclusiveness for all students,” said Dawn Hildenbrand, director of Yough's special education.

The concert was a benefit for all of the students — the band members as well as the audience, said Yough Superintendent Janet Sardon.

“It promotes collaboration and the spirit of the holidays, giving students the opportunity to learn from one another,” Sardon said.

While autism-friendly performances have been conducted at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh for the professional production of “The Lion King,” the autism-friendly performance by a high school band is a rarity in the region, said Luciana Randall, executive director of the Advisory Board on Autism and Related Disorders. The Etna-based nonprofit provides autism support across the state to parents and autism support groups.

“As far as I know, they (Yough) are the first ones (high school) to do it,” said Randall, who hopes other districts will follow Yough's example. The school district's interest in conducting the special concert for the children “might just reflect the increase in autism,” Randall said, “and the arts community's willingness to help.”

About one in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network.

Schools and organizations considering autism-friendly performances should be aware that because some autistic children are sensitive to high-pitched noises from instruments such as violins or bagpipes, earphones can be used to reduce the sound they hear at a concert, Randall said. An autism-friendly performance might have half the lights on rather than leave the audience in near-total darkness. Explosive noises could be eliminated from a production, and the overall amplification could be toned down, Randall added.

Performers should be told what to expect from their audience at such shows, Randall said.

Sommur Hofmann, a sophomore band member, said the experience “was definitely an eye-opener.”

“It was great to see their faces light up when they played the drums,” senior Devin Pytlak said.

Observing from the audience, sophomore color guard Brooke Williams said the students seemed really excited.

“It was nice to watch their faces light up,” Williams said.

Green praised band members, who opted to give the youngsters attending the concert a gift. The band members received a list of gift ideas from the kids and tried to match their wishes, Green said.

The performance by the students and the band touched Breanna Gromicko of Herminie, a 2012 Yough graduate who is a sophomore studying music education at Shenandoah Conservancy in Winchester, Va.

“We're learning to deal with students of a variety of abilities. This is what I am supposed to be doing,” Gromicko said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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