After establishing and working with an autism advisory group in the spring of 2011, the NJSO piloted its Autism Community Initiative in 2012 with the goal of serving young people with ASD. As part of the pilot, the Orchestra presented 10 chamber music programs to more than 800 youth, educators and staff at six Mercer County locations- The Newgrange School, Mercer Elementary School, Joseph F. Cappello School, Mercer High School and Eden Autism Services' Institute. The NJSO further presented a chamber music program for as many as 20 adults with autism at Eden Autism Services adult facility.
As preparation for the performances, the NJSO provided seven of its orchestra musicians with a professional development workshop-facilitated by Music specialist Jenn Haines of The Newgrange School-about tailoring chamber music programs to ASD youth.
Patricia Dowd, Director of the Irvington Public Schools' Special Services Department, said of an NJSO performance at the district's Thurgood Marshall School: "The recent performance of the NJSO for three Irvington autistic classes allowed the students to listen to a story, hear the music that increased their excitement and also interact with the musicians. Students and staff thoroughly enjoyed the performance and were able to ask many questions regarding the musicians and the instruments. This unique experience for our children has truly touched their hearts and left some of them wondering can they also play an instrument.
"Allowing one of our teachers to participate by reading the script between the musical interludes provided familiarity for the students, and at the same time the teacher was able to paraphrase some portions of the story to facilitate student understanding. [Our staff] felt it was beneficial for the students. This was an experience [the students] will long remember, and one that many may have never experienced if [the NJSO] did not make this program available."
NJSO Principal Bassoon Bob Wagner participated in the NJSO's pilot program, receiving professional-development training and performing programs for both adults and young people with autism. "Through the Autism Community Initiative, we are reaching an easily engaged and incredibly receptive audience we have not reached before. [At the pilot performances in the spring], the audience really loved that we were there, and through the program, I gained a lot of knowledge I didn't have before. We have tailored the chamber music program to meet the autism community's needs and our artistic ideals, and both the adults and the school-aged kids had an amazing interest in the performances.
"There is a pretty amazing sense of pride in how New Jersey has embraced and funded autism care and education in an unprecedented way. It is a natural fit for the NJSO to get involved. I am really pleased that the League of American Orchestras and the Getty Foundation saw the great value in the work we are trying to do."
With the support of the Getty Grant, the NJSO Autism Community Initiative will continue to grow by increasing the number of services it provides and expanding the geographic scope of the program. In FY13, the initiative will provide professional development training to additional NJSO musicians and present as many as 21 chamber ensemble programs in nine locations in Mercer and Essex Counties, serving more than 1,000 youth and adults with autism, as well as their families, educators and other support staff. Partners in Essex County will include The Children's Institute, Sawtelle Learning Center and Irvington Public School District's Department of Special Services.