Without a diverse executive team, businesses and organizations are not making decisions that are aligned with the true markets they are trying to serve. People with different abilities bring fresh innovative ideas to the executive table. I like to say people with autism don’t ‘think outside the box.” Many times they don’t even know there is a box. Brilliant minds like Temple Grandin have completely changed the cattle industry. Dan Aykroyd (who identifies as having Aspergers) transformed comedy. Ido Kedar, a non-speaking autistic young man works with scientists to explain the way that his brain processes information changing interventions for people on the spectrum. Finally, it’s good business! Wouldn’t you want to support an organization that boldly announces that they employ people of all races and abilities? Goodness never goes out of style.
Aspart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Elaine Hall.
Elaine Hall is an internationally acclaimed speaker, writer, Hollywood acting coach and consultant, life coach and Mom of a non-speaking autistic young adult son. In 2004, she founded The Miracle Project, a fully inclusive neurodiverse theater, film, social skills, and expressive arts program for individuals with autism and all abilities. Through shared creative experiences with peers, The Miracle Project encourages individuals with autism, other disabilities, and all abilities to develop social and job skills, enhance communication, increase self-awareness, and confidence, ease anxiety and find joy in the experience. Elaine’s memoir, Now I See the Moon was selected by the United Nations for World Autism Awareness Month. The Miracle Project is profiled in the Emmy winning HBO film Autism: The Musical and in Autism: The Sequel and is being replicated worldwide.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Igrew up in a small middle-class suburb in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. near Andrews Air Force Base. We had a very close-knit extended family with Sunday dinners at my Dad’s parents house in South East Washington. My paternal grandfather was an immigrant from Russia, (an orphan he came to the US on his own when he was 14 years old.) My maternal grandmother, also an immigrant, had a large extended family of very religious rabbis for generations back. We were very involved with my aunts, uncles and cousins. I recall sitting at my Grandfather’s feet hearing his arrival stories in America and how he built his life for himself and his family. My Grandfather was known as one of the most honest, kindest, and considerate businessmen in the city and always paid cash for everything. A beautiful legacy.
My Mom and Dad struggled to make ends meet when I was growing up, although there was always plenty of food on the table and room in their small kitchen for friends and family to drop in unexpectedly for dinner. My parents also provided dance and piano classes for my younger sister and I, and classical music training and drum lessons for my brother. We wanted for nothing. Our conversations at the dinner table were filled with laughter, respect for our neighbors, political conversation and discussions about G-d and religion. My Dad and my Mom were always helping out the neighbors — either my dad fixing things for others, or my Mom taking care of the more senior neighbors. We were taught early on to be of service. I would spend every Wednesday going across the street to be with Colleen, a teenager with Cerebral Palsey. We would spend hours together enjoying each other’s company; and I would also help feed her, help her in and out of her wheelchair and be a helper for her mom. These were some of my favorite times of my week.
Our family was also met with antisemitism. We would often receive calls from the White Anglo Saxon Socialist Party asking if we wanted to buy ovens to burn Jews in. Our small synagogue that my father helped build in Camp Springs Maryland was burned to the ground. I remember coming home from school one day and asking my Mom, “what is a kite?” “A kite is something that flies in the air,” she answered. “No, Mom,” I said, “not that kind of kite. The bad kind.” You see, I had been called a ‘kike.’
My parents comforted us and did their best to provide as safe a place for us to grow up in as possible. We always embraced all races and religions. When my cousin married a black man, my Dad and Mom were the first family members to embrace him. Our friends were of all races and religions. I believe that my upbringing to be of service to others, to see people for who they were and not to for their race, or ability, framed who I am today and the work that I have been chosen to do.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
When I was 19 years old, home from college for the summer, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. I read the book in one day and then reread it the next. What struck me was the concept that in any situation, no matter how bad, we have a choice. That pain is inevitable, but suffering is voluntary. I learned that everything can be taken from a person but one thing — choice of one’s attitude in that situation. I realized in that reading, that my attitude impacts everything that I do. This was to be my underlying principle for the rest of my life. No matter what has happened to me: infertility, very difficult first marriage, illness, adopting a son then diagnosed with autism, frightening divorce, eviction, financially ruined, single mom, etc. I have always been able to dig deep into my inner resources and maintain a positive, loving attitude. I do believe Man’s Search for Meaning, along with my family’s positive spirit in the midst of challenge, kept mine afloat during my darkest times.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I have been privileged to have several “Life Lesson Quotes” here are a few:
1.) The first from my dear father. I had had two ectopic pregnancies and was finally told by my gynecologist that due to a medication given to my mother when I was in utero, I had a T-shaped uterus and could not ever carry a child to term. I was devastated. My entire life I knew I wanted, needed to be a mother. For the first time in my life, I sunk into a severe depression — so much so that my Dad and Mom flew to LA to be with me.
My Dad took me to lunch at my favorite spot, “Back on the Beach Café” in Santa Monica — which is literally on the beach. With the gentle ocean breeze blowing thru my hair and the sounds of the waves in the background, I broke down and cried. “Daddy,” I asked, “Will I always feel this sad.” “Sweetheart,” my Dad comforted, “the sadness will always be there, but there will be so much joy in your life, that you are going to have to go in and look for it.” My Dad gave me hope. A few days later, I visited my rabbi who assured me that adopting was one of the greatest gifts we can give to a child. I became ready to adopt.
My Dad’s words have influenced my life and my work in many ways. My Dad was correct in his prophecy — I adopted an extraordinary little boy, who is non-speaking autistic and has grown into an amazing young man — still autistic, still non-speaking but happy, communicative, lives in his own apartment with support, has a job and presents with me at corporations, organizations and even at the United Nations. I have remarried a wonderful man who became my son’s stepdad. My son directly influenced my work and because of him, I have created a methodology that has helped thousands of autistic families across the globe. We know laughter and joy just as my Dad predicted, and every now and then — — I do reflect back on the hard times, the challenges — and realize just as he said, they are always there — but I have to look for them. Because of these dark times, I am able to have more compassion and understanding of others. This has helped me be a better person and one who can help others through their despair
2.) Albert Einstein’s Quote: “There are only two ways to view your life; one is as if nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is a miracle. “
Everything in my life is a miracle. When raising a child with a disability a parent doesn’t always enjoy the typical things that so many other parents take for granted, i.e. first words, riding a bike, crossing the monkey bars, etc. We parents of children with disabilities don’t take anything for granted. Everything my son did was a miracle. I like to reverse the astronaut’s quote and say, “what is one small step for a typical kid is a giant leap for my special child.” Every seemingly small achievement is a miracle to me. In reality everything unexplainable becomes miraculous. Our bodies, our senses, our beingness — all miraculous. The beautiful smell of the beautiful rose; the sun rising, the moon glowing. Everything around us can be taken for granted or seen as a miracle. I chose to see miracles in everything. My life today — that I remarried at age 50, found meaningful work late in life, that I created and run a non for profit that reaches hundreds of individuals weekly, that I am requested to speak and travel across the globe to share my story, that I have more friends and wonderful family and extended that family than I have time to see, that I am financially stable that my life knows joy — remains a miracle.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I describe leadership as an opportunity to share my vision with others and then embolden them to help me make it a reality. I lead by example. The most important thing for me is to take full responsibility for myself and my actions — this way I can tune into other’s needs without my own ‘stuff’ getting in the way. True leadership allows for everyone’s voice at the table — and then my willingness to synthesize the wisdom I receive from my team and have the courage to be the final voice. I believe a leader must be fair, must set clear boundaries, must be a good listener, have compassion for their team members. A strong leader will have a vision, a higher purpose, and set an example for others.
My leadership of The Miracle Project was recently tested during this troubled time of Covid-19 and quarantine. When we first learned that we could no longer hold our classes for children and adults with autism, other disabilities and their peers at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills — I knew I needed to get into action. Immediately. The Miracle Project classes had been a community for some of the most vulnerable children and families in LA. I was very concerned that their being alone without any contact with their peers could cause severe isolation, anxiety and setbacks. I phoned my board members and requested that we make all of our 11 classes (over 150 students) available by zoom. As soon as I got their seal of approval, I got into action. We connected with all of The Miracle Project teaching artists and set up zoom meetings to brainstorm ideas. The teaching artists did their own research on how to lead music, movement, acting games etc. online and in less than 2 weeks we were up and running — converting all of our classes online. After each class, we would hold a debrief with the staff, troubleshoot issues, connect with the parents as to what was working and what was not working.
The Today Show learned about what we were doing and a producer from the show came to our virtual class — and ended up doing a fabulous piece on us.
More importantly, our families were able to connect with each other; students were able to be supported through a most difficult time; and we actually created the first original musical called the Influencer filmed entirely in quarantine, starring individuals with autism, and all abilities. .
During all of this, I had to keep things positive and nurture my creative and executive team. I assured them that their mental, physical and emotional health was the most important thing for them right now — and to do their best but to share when they felt overwhelmed or overloaded. Our development director had two small children at home, and without childcare was struggling to keep her workload going. I modified her schedule so that she could work when her children were napping or asleep and gave her time off to take care of herself and be with her husband (who had had a death in his family). I assured our team that they did not need to be perfect, to allow themselves mistakes — all the while keeping them encouraged and supported. We ended up making our final performance of the Influencer a fundraiser and raised almost 40,000 dollars for the non for profit. Everyone gave their all and believed in the vision knowing that they would always be supported.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Self-care is paramount. My spiritual practice is the cornerstone of all that I do, of who I am as a leader, mother, wife, friend. I begin and end each day meditating, journaling, and setting my intention for the day. I start off the day with deep breathing, chakra meditation, visualizing and connecting to a light from as high as I can imagine filling my entire being with a radiant light, and then grounding myself with feeling the support of the earth beneath my feet. Every meeting with my staff, creative team, parents begins with this grounding and vision so that we are all connected to our highest selves when we meet and are calm and centered. I eat very healthy — intermittent fasting, all organic, healthy meals. I take time to eat outside every day. I take walks. Two to three dance classes a week, a yoga class on Sunday and constantly check in with my self and my spiritual guides throughout the day. I make sure that I am breathing when things get stressful, walk off a difficult problem before addressing it with another. Call a friend when I am in a bind. I have advisors for many different things and call or email them when needed. I am never afraid to ask for help and do my best to confront difficult situations quickly so that they do not cause unrest. Before any high stakes meeting, I connect to my higher Self and inner ‘guides’ to speak through me so that my words reflect the highest good of all. Reminding myself and others that we are truly ‘all one.”
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is, of course, a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
We have been living in a pressure cooker. In some ways, Baby Boomers have become complacent. They’ve forgotten all they fought for in the 1960s and 1970s and have become used to their creature comforts.
The wealthy and privileged continue to prosper while those underserved continue to fall behind. We have become a country of addicts- addicted to processed food, fast food, consumerism, busyness. With the restrictions that the quarantine has brought to everyone — the people the most affected are our most vulnerable — people of color, people who live paycheck to paycheck, people with disabilities. For those who used shopping, eating, busyness to fortify themselves, they no longer have these outlets and have been forced to go within. The problems have always been there — — the restrictions from the virus are just causing them to erupt.
There is a lot of fear in this country. When children are afraid, they turn to their parents to reassure them of their safety. A loving parent knows that when their child comes to them in fear, particularly about something they do not know is true, a good parent helps their child learn and gain more information so that they can make intelligent decisions that are based on facts. They don’t tell them more scary stories to increase their anxiety. Fear and not knowing the facts. Today some of our most important leaders are fomenting fear — causing more anxiety and mistrust among people and being divisive to protect their positions of power. I also feel that most baby boomers, who fought for equality and walked in the civil rights movement — became too comfortable and complacent. Not wanting to upset their own status quo and take a stand. Some very well-meaning people, assumed since they themselves were not racist — then how could others be: Didn’t we overcome this? Hey, we had a Black President. However what most white people are not aware of systemic underlying dismissal of people who are different.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I created Inclusion from WithIn (I WIn)® a program that asks people to examine their own core values and to be mindful of how they treat themselves and reflect on how they treat others. I have spoken around the globe (including 6 times at the United Nations) on the importance of not wanting to ‘fix’ or ‘change’ others, but rather to meet each individual as exactly where they are without judgment, fear, or control but instead with curiosity, compassion, and care. I WIn celebrates differences, encourages diversity, and welcomes differently-abled people to be part of every conversation. I believe we learn more from others by listening and not trying to control or manage their behavior or ways of being in the world. As St. Francis stated, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.” Through my work with The Miracle Project and with faith-based organizations, I help to develop an environment of love, compassion, and understanding between people of all colors, religions and abilities. It’s actually much easier and less stressful for everyone to be inclusive. What I tend to create is not cultures of inclusion — but an environment of true belonging. Where everyone learns and grows together. It is possible — I have witnessed this in every Miracle Project program I have created. Fear disappears when we realize we are all more alike than different.
Here is an example: My son is my greatest teacher. One of the first things he typed when he was learning to express himself through a keyboard was “Be more of a listener.” He is absolutely correct. Whenever he has had severe challenges it was because I or one of his caregivers was not really listening to him. My creed now is “Listen to the child that does not speak.”
When I meet with new parents who want to know what their child will accomplish in our classes my message is always the same, “I cannot promise you we will do a musical, I cannot promise that your child will participate in every activity. But what I can promise is that they will be loved, accepted, and appreciated for exactly who they are.” (Ultimately TMP is now evidence-based and is proven to increase communication, socialization, decrease anxiety, and promote joy — with over 40 original musicals created and performed by hundreds of children, teens, and young adults. — But appreciating who they are is always paramount to any performance and yet they all grow exponentially. )
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
A diverse executive team is a true representation of our society.
20% of the population has a disability
40% of the population identifies as a minority
Over 50% of the population are women
Without a diverse executive team, businesses/ organizations are not making decisions that are aligned with the true markets they are trying to serve.
People with different abilities bring fresh innovative ideas to the executive table. I like to say people with autism don’t ‘think outside the box.” Many times they don’t even know there is a box. Brilliant minds like Temple Grandin have completely changed the cattle industry. Dan Aykroyd (who identifies as having Aspergers) transformed comedy. Ido Kedar, a non-speaking autistic young man works with scientists to explain the way that his brain processes information changing interventions for people on the spectrum.
It’s good business! Wouldn’t you want to support an organization that boldly announces that they employ people of all races and abilities? Goodness never goes out of style.
Temple Grandin says that many of the great innovators in Silicon Valley are on the spectrum. We need those minds to evolve our society.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Set an intention. To be open, receptive and curious of one’s self and of others. All too often organizations look at being more inclusive as simply another thing to check off on a to-do list. A truly inclusive society involves a complete change in attitude in each individual which results in a systemic change in the culture. When I work with organizations, I recommend that everyone from the gardener to the CEO is trained in my Inclusion from WithIn program. When every person sets their own intention to be reflective and curious, all of the ‘how to’s’ just present themselves. I often work with businesses and organizations and one of the first things they say is ‘it will be too expensive to be inclusive.” I offer a 60-second solution to inclusivity. I ask them to look at each other in the room with fear, judgment, mistrust, separateness, etc for 30 seconds. I then ask them to reflect on how they felt during and after those 30 seconds. The responses are often the same, “anxious; my body felt tight; the longer I looked at people with fear, the more unsafe I felt; isolated….” Then I ask them to take a long deep breath and let that go. Next, I offer that they now look at each other with curiosity, appreciation and acceptance for 30 seconds. Afterward, they express they feel “comfortable; at ease; joyful; like they belonged.” (and I’ve done this with as many as an audience of 500 to a zoom room of 30). All it took was a simple change in intention. When I look at my son, I see him as this beautiful light a bright spirit in this often dismissive world. One day I walked into the supermarket with him and instead of looking at him — I looked at the way others were looking at him — with distrust, fear, judgment. My son types to communicate. of the He typed later that day, that he wished people would stop looking at him like he is weird and just ask him ‘what’s wrong with you?’ That way he could clearly articulate why he has strange movements or wears headphones etc
- Identify the barriers to being inclusive. Before we can grow a garden, we must remove the rocks and the weeds. Without judgment, allow individuals to express their fears, their concerns, their cultural and internal biases. When people are given permission to make conscious their fears and concerns — again without judgment. I have found when people are given the opportunity to their concerns, often the very act of expression lowers their anxiety and judgment of ourselves, which leads to more acceptance and appreciation of others. Our brains are hard-wired to react to protect ourselves against a perceived threat to our existence. People who are perceived as different make cause this historic reaction. When we learn the facts about a person with a disability or of a different background, race, religion or color, people often lose that sense of fear. I am often hired by Hollywood TV and film writers, producers, and directors to either review scripts or help in the casting process to make productions more diverse and inclusive. Often TV and Film executives are cautious about hiring someone with autism to portray someone with autism. They have heard only negative descriptions of autistic people. That they are unimaginative, unfocused, lack in social ability. I then introduce them to my Miracle Project actors who are trained professionals and are always camera ready, focused, disciplined sometimes even more than their neurotypical co-actors. The facts will dismiss the bias.
- Realize that inclusion begins from within. In order to truly impact societal change, we must ask ourselves: Where do we negate aspects of ourselves and then project them on to others? Guide others to develop a conscious sense of self-love, acceptance of their challenges and appreciation for their strengths. When I ask audiences how many times a day they judge themselves, put themselves down, compare themselves to others — they respond at least 10–20 times a day. I propose that perhaps if they stopped judging themselves they might be able to better accept and appreciate others.
- Foster a deep understanding that we are all different; and yet we are all the same. By recognizing our own sensory sensitivities, we can be more sensitive to the needs of others without judgment. Encourage each person to speak up and advocate for their needs to help them be more productive. Create an environment where everyone can share their thoughts and opinions in positive constructive ways. Build teams where one person’s strengths might be another person’s weakness. The second time I spoke at the United Nations I asked the delegates and officials in the audience to stop using the term High Functioning and Low Functioning in reference to autism. In reality, we are all high functioning in some areas and low functioning in others. I am highly creative — but challenged with administrative and technological skills. It is actually easier for me to write a script for a show than it is for me to figure out how to copy, collate and file the finished product. One might say I am ‘high functioning in a creative realm; and low functioning in the administrative tasks. Fortunately, I hire people who are really savvy at organizing to do what my challenges are. How would I feel if I were judged daily on how badly I organized paper; and what if I had to spend the majority of my time getting better at organizing, copying and filing? I would lose all of my energy and confidence in the areas where I excel — and the world would lose my creative voice. The same with my son and others on the autistic spectrum. They may possess incredible talents in music, mathematics, writing, etc. but not be able to sit still in an office, or share their ideas verbally, etc. When specialists would observe my son in a public school environment, they would note that he held his ears, could not sit still, ran around in circles and needed to leave the classroom several times a day. He was seen as ‘low functioning autistic. After school, if he had been observed leading 20 people on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, traversing over steep hills and creating new pathways, the very same specialists would call him “high functioning autistic.” We all have strengths and weaknesses. Allow everyone a voice and everyone to shine in areas where they can reveal their best.
- Listen to each other and create opportunities to celebrate everyone’s contributions. If everyone took the time to pause, reflect and then listen to each other’s points of view we would have a more understanding, compassionate, diverse and inclusive culture.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes, I know we are going thru a rough dark period now. However, after darkness always comes the light. To me, it is as if all of this has been hiding under the surface and is now being made conscious. Through consciousness comes awareness, through awareness change. We have an opportunity to rise like the Phoenix from the ashes to a more compassionate, caring world where everyone has a place at the table — where everyone belongs. The Media sets the tone, and the Entertainment Industry is making changes in the way they cast, depict, and employ. People in power are taking responsibility and making choices. Hiring people with disabilities to portray people with disabilities; white people not doing voice overs for people of color. Etc.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oh yes, I would love to have a private breakfast, lunch or even zoom call with Lin Manuel Miranda. He is a leader in diversity and inclusivity plus a most conscious individual using his celebrity for good. I believe he would love what we are doing wt The Miracle Project, creating opportunities for the voices of autistic individuals to be heard through music, dance, and creating original musical theater. Many of my autistic students know all of the songs for Hamilton and use them as their personal theme song! I think he would enjoy our musicals!!!
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!