If you ask Juli Miller, executive director of the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center, autism affects everyone.
“The thing about autism is it’s not just the person who’s diagnosed (who’s affected),” Miller said. “It’s the proverbial ripples in the pond.”
This weekend’s Arts for Autism Gala seeks to spread awareness about the autism spectrum while acknowledging the many gifts that community has to offer. The San Luis Obispo event, funded through a $13,500 “Bravo SLO!” grant from the Hind Foundation, includes concerts, dance performances and an art show featuring works by autism spectrum artists.
“We always talk about all the negative stuff,” said co-creator Theresa Slobodnik, artistic director of Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo. “We wanted to celebrate the wonderful gift that life with autism brings. There are artists. There are musicians. There are actors.”
Miller originally came up with the idea for the Arts for Autism Gala three years ago as a way to supplement the center’s annual Walk for Autism.
“Our walk is a fantastic fundraiser and it’s a great flashpoint of support, but it’s time we start sharing with the community,” she said. According to Miller, one in every 110 American children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Symptoms include impaired social interaction, difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.
“There’s a glass wall,” explained Slobodnik, whose son, Aksel, was diagnosed with autism at age 4. “You’re not going to get the same reactions. You’re not going to get the normal type of interactions or responses.”
“It’s tricky especially if you have a child who is very smart and very funny and has some really smart talents that you recognize,” she added.
“We have so many individuals who are tremendously talented, but they don’t do much with their talent because of (their) social disability,” she said. “Arts for Autism is an opportunity not just to raise awareness and funds. It’s also (a chance) to provide an opportunity to individuals on the spectrum that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The Arts for Autism Gala kicks off Friday with an art show in the Rossi Grand Lobby of the Cohan Center in San Luis Obispo. It features about 15 artists working in photography, oil painting, computer graphics and other media; proceeds from the three-day show will benefit the Autism Spectrum Center.
Audience members will get a chance to chat with the artists at two pre-performance receptions Saturday and Sunday, featuring appetizers, wine and live music by pianist Evan Lin and cellist Aksel Slobodnik.
Each day concludes with a dance concert featuring a revival — “The Firebird,” choreographed by Gilbert Reed and set to Igor Stravinky’s famous score — and two world premieres. (Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo is also offering a special youth performance of “The Firebird” on Friday.)
Theresa Slobodnik’s “Simple Gifts” features an Appalachian-flavored folk song cycle.
“It goes through every aspect of life — joy, flirtation, losing someone — all in five songs,” the choreographer said.
The 16-member group of dancers, musicians and vocalists includes Slobodnik’s sister, her sister-in-law, her son Aksel and her daughter Hannah, who also serves as musical director and arranger.
San Luis Obispo choreographer Lisa Deyo examines the autism experience with her original ballet “Sketches on the Spectrum,” set to original music by Aksel Slobodnik and other artists.
One portion features a scratchy turn-of-the-century recording of Claude Debussy’s “Je Tremble En Voyant Ton Visage” (“I Tremble When I See Your Face”), performed by English soprano Maggie Teyte. Deyo said the static matches the sensory overload that some autistic people experience.
Another part of the ballet mimics autism’s repetitive nature with a rhythmic spoken word piece.
“Hopefully it takes the viewer through this story from all different perspectives,” Deyo said of the six-dancer “Sketches on the Spectrum.” “Even if the truth isn’t the prettiest and the easiest, you can find the beauty within that experience.”
All three ballets feature Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo performers dancing alongside the likes of Las Vegas choreographer Greg Sample; Drew Silvaggio, artistic director of Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo; and Tanya Tolmasoff of Variable Velocity Performance Group.
Miller and Slobodnik hope to make the Arts for Autism Gala an annual event.
“It really touches everyone — the school system, families, friends,” Slobodnik said. “We want to bring together the neurotypical community and the autistic community as peers.”
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.