Dramatically Effective Therapy for Retardation

Article excerpt

Debbie is no different from anyone else when it comes to getting onstage. There's a little ham in her that starts to come out during her performances. She recently played the Sun, adorned in canary-yellow garb and a golden metallic mask. There weren't any lines - but the actress threw herself into her starring role.

She shone. The applause didn't hurt, either; everyone loves applause - even Debbie, a petite, brown-haired woman who has Down syndrome.

She doesn't chat much, but the 41-year-old woman, who is almost small enough to fit in Michael Jordan's hip pocket, expresses herself eloquently through the dramatic arts.

She participates in Therapeutic Noh Theater productions at the Art and Drama Therapy Institute Inc. (ADTI) in Northeast. The institute is a therapeutic treatment center for people with mental retardation and multiple disabilities. There Debbie can be a diva.

"We have taught her how to use a public forum to get positive attention, acceptance and approval, which has strengthened her interest in performing. She sincerely lives for the applause and love from the audiences," says ADTI co-founder and president Margaret "Muggy Do" Dickinson, who holds a doctorate.

Society has misunderstood mental retardation, often confusing it with mental illness, she says - but they are profoundly different conditions.

"The challenge is to change attitudes and shatter the negative stereotypes and preconceived notions that suppress and stigmatize individuals with mental retardation," says Ms. Dickinson, 52.

At ADTI - which she founded with executive vice president Sirkku M. Sky Hiltunen, who also holds a doctorate - people with mental retardation are revered and the programs revolve around them, Ms. Dickinson says.

It's no wonder Debbie, who prefers to use only her first name, is inspired to excel within the eclectic and vibrant Northeast facility. It's an artist's delight. Each nook and cranny of the block-long building displays paintings, antiques, wall hangings, ceramic masks and photo collages.

Theme rooms set the mood. For instance, the Sammy Davis Jr. Music Studio contains every imaginable instrument to encourage clients to express their musical genius.The Florence Cane Art Therapy Studio gives clients a place to draw and paint to their hearts' content. They can chat among themselves in the Moroccan Lounge with its exotic ambience. Meals even are served in a theme area - a '50s-style diner, complete with a jukebox that keeps the oldies spinning and the tempo upbeat. At ADTI, treatment comes through the arts.

Keith Owens, 23, looks forward to the center's Friday afternoon socials. That's when everybody gets to party together. Folks dance to the sounds of Motown along with the P-funk beat of Parliament Funkadelic.

"It's the best. Dr. Do and Dr. Sky are great," Mr. Owens says, referring to Ms. Dickinson and Ms. Hiltunen.

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Yes, it's an unorthodox facility, but then again, so are its founders. Ms. Dickinson and Ms. Hiltunen are innovative thinkers when it comes to working with people with mental retardation and disabilities.

Their goal is to nurture and heal using the arts. Clients quilt, weave, make pottery, master musical instruments and participate in Therapeutic Noh Theater. They learn puppetry and stage performance and participate in poetry therapy, plus lots more. The activities increase clients' self-esteem and social skills, Ms. Dickinson says.

The two women opened ADTI in 1992 with 20 clients. Today, 129 folks ages 21 to 65 line up Monday through Friday to get in, and nobody wants to leave, says the upbeat Ms. Dickinson, who is a third-generation Washingtonian.

Their peers in psychology and the care-provider community didn't think they were the sharpest knives in the drawer when they embarked upon this venture, says Ms. Hiltunen, 56. …