This guest post is by Kate Lacour, ATR-BC. Don’t forget if you’re interested in submitting papers for the 2017 Autism SOiety conference, click HERE

Why would spray painting trash cans to look like Star Wars characters amount to a serious act of advocacy?

Creating fun is not only meaningful, it is essential.  Most of us do not define ourselves by our skill sets, or our deficits, or our jobs alone.  In fact, we tell more about who we are through our leisure: our hobbies, our style, our interests.  Fun gives us substantive identity and meaning.  And few things are as satisfying as publicly celebrating those values.New Orleans is a city that values fun, and Mardi Gras is

New Orleans is a city that values fun, and Mardi Gras is public celebration at its finest.  It is a month-long festival that is celebrated throughout New Orleans with over 68 parades, each with its own theme and traditions. People from all neighborhoods and backgrounds come together to enjoy themselves.

When the city comes together to celebrate, are those with autism included? Or is the noise, crowds and chaos create a functional barrier to this community experience?  Is everyone accessing the fun they deserve?The question galvanized me and my business partner, Sarah Ambrose to take action.  It was 2015, and we had just founded NOLArts Learning Center, a nonprofit creative enrichment center providing art therapy, music, nutrition, tutoring and exercise services to those with autism and other exceptionalities.

“So many of our clients appreciate Star Wars and geek culture as much as we do,” I told Sarah, “and they want to have a good time as much as the next person.  Would they enjoy being in a sci-fi Mardi Gras parade?  Could NOLArts help make that possible?”

With that question in mind, we approached the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a science fiction themed parade organization, or “krewe”, with the idea of founding a “sub-krewe” for those with autism.  The parade itself, which celebrates fantasy and science fiction with farcical homemade costumes and floats, is made up of over 100 sub-krewes, each with its own humorous theme.  Ryan Ballard, the founder of Chewbacchus, threw his weight behind the idea.  NOLArts also gained the support of the world-famous Preservation Hall’s foundation, which works to preserve the jazz legacy of New Orleans and provide music education outreach.  IDIYA, a local “maker-space”, joined in to offer the use of their laser-cutter, 3D printer and other creative facilities.

“Partnerships are key to organizing an event like this,” Sarah points out.  “Having the expertise and support of a large group makes possible things that you can’t do alone, no matter how dedicated you are.  But it has to be a two-way street.”  Sarah has since provided training to Preservation Hall and other partner organizations in effectively serving and including those on the spectrum.

With the support of these partners and many dedicated volunteers, NOLArts Learning Center developed a curriculum, acquired materials and created a dedicated space for a “sub-krewe workshop”.  A group of nine teen participants met and collaborated for nine weeks to prepare for the parade. The participants called themselves the STOMP Troopers and developed a logo and look to match.  Costumes were sewn, light-up wires attached, doubloons and throws (small items tossed to the crowd) prepared.

The painted trash cans?  In the hands of these pioneering teens, they became drums and cymbals.  Hours of musical practice, video walk through, live rehearsals and team building created the confidence and comfort with expectations that the STOMP Troopers needed to succeed.  Tasks like sewing were adapted where needed, and multimodal instruction was used to engage participants visually, verbally and manually.  Supports like flexible drum straps and noise-cancelling headphones were made available.

On the night of the parade, costumed musicians from Preservation Hall and IDIYA, along with family and volunteers, escorted the STOMP Troopers for three hours of drumming, marching and mugging to the crowd.

The STOMP Troopers project is now in its second year and has reached hundreds beyond New Orleans, through lectures at the National Autism Society and a TEDx talk.  This year’s krewe promises to be larger and more diverse than the first, but equally funky, eccentric and fun.  Young people who appreciate music,  sci-fi or just like to party are encouraged to apply to the workshop through the online application on the NOLArts website.

Those living outside of New Orleans can follow the group’s weekly progress in the NOLArts’ blog or, better still, learn to organize a similar cultural participation workshop in their hometown.  NOLArts will be distributing a “best practices for event inclusion” guide based on the project on the NOLArts website and offering inclusion consultation services.

I encourage you to try this at home.  Look for cultural resources and events in your hometown that could be made more accessible.  Every city and town has festivals, rallies and performances, on some scale, that are fun and free and that everyone should have access to.  And, given the right supports, everyone can.

We owe it to ourselves to make local celebratory and artistic culture more inclusive.  Because community means everyone.  Because those with autism deserve not only to be cultural participants, but cultural creators as well.  And because performance is fun, and fun is essential.

Watch videos of the STOMP Troopers in action at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMGb0ftqWgU

Find the STOMP Troopers on Facebook at

https://www.facebook.com/STOMPTroopersKrewe/

Follow the STOMP Troopers blog at

http://www.nolartslearningcenter.com/stomp-troopers

 

Kate Lacour is the co-founder and Executive Director of NOLArts Learning Center, which offers art therapy, music, nutrition, tutoring and exercise services for those with exceptionalities.  She is a board-certified art therapist and freelance writer, blogger and editor.  She can be reached at NOLArtsLearningCenter@gmail.com