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Students With Autism to Take Stage at National Theater Festival

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Later this week, students from P.S. 94 will travel a national theater festival, where they'll be the first students with autism to take the stage in that nationwide event. NY1's Lindsey Christ filed the following report.

Eleven-year-old Christopher Cuiman said he signed up for musical theater to impress the ladies.

"I feel like I'm a superstar, like everyone will, guess what, guess what, when I'm a star, all the girls will want my autograph," he said.

Christopher is about to go on a much bigger stage. He's going to Atlanta Friday to participate in the Junior Theater Festival, along with 10 classmates from P.S. 94, the Spectrum School. The festival attracts 4,000 students from across the country, but they'll be the first representing a school for kids with autism.

"This is exciting," said Gary Hecht, superintendent of schools for Students with Disabilities. "Most often, students with disabilities are really kind of put to the side, and it's always that it's the disability that they have rather than their ability.

Christopher's mom, Marilyn Birriel, says that performing helped him develop new abilities.

"It took him a while, but being on this, it opened a lot of opportunity, a lot of doors," she says.

The musical theater program at P.S. 94 started a few years ago with the help of ArtsConnection, a nonprofit that brings artists into public schools as teachers. Now, every student participates.

"All the wonderful things that happen with the arts, happen with these children on the stage. It's about focus, it's about concentration, it's about task commitment," said Steven Tennen of ArtsConnection. "These children are working sometimes an hour and a half on rehearsal. They don't lose their focus. They don't lose their concentration. They're looking at one another. They're making eye contact. They're doing things that they don't normally do in real life.

It was Freddie Gershon's idea to bring the P.S. 94 students to Atlanta. He owns the rights to hundreds of musicals, including Aladdin, and has funded the Arts Connection project. He says that student performers share similar experiences and emotions, disability or not.

"The preparation, the anxiety, the nervousness, the thrill afterwards," Gershon said.

"When I saw everyone, I said to myself, 'Don't be nervous, don't be nervous, don't be nervous,'" Christopher said.

He said he's not nervous to go to Atlanta. He's ready to perform.

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