Access to Theatre: Building Confidence and Giving Voice

Group of four young participants acting while along a perimeter other participants look on

Access to Theatre’s 2016 Summer Institute is gearing up for another fantastic summer program for youth of all abilities! ATT’s Summer Institute will take place from July 18-29th , 2016, with performances on Friday, July 29th, 2016 at 1pm and 6pm at the Boston Center for the Arts! We hope you can join us!

Throughout 2016, ATT staff, artists and Peer Leaders continue to lead a series of 20 workshops at Massachusetts Hospital School (MHS) on Sunday afternoons, which began this year in October Fall 2015 and continued through May of 2016 . The sessions culminated with our Third Annual Showcase Event scheduled for Saturday, May 22nd, 2016 at 4pm Mass Hospital School. We thank all who could join us in this celebration of our youth’s many accomplishments this year!

ATT’s After School Program at MHS brings together MHS students and youth with disabilities from Greater Boston and surrounding communities to explore acting and improvisation. This year, we witnessed many new and past participants challenging themselves to explore using their voice to express their skills through working in small and large groups. In the fall of 2015, many participants started the program with little confidence, and over the course of the year, witnessed their growth as they have acquired skills and confidence to successfully create and explore different themes that emerged from the Sunday workshops. For example, one MHS student struggled with peer interaction in the beginning of the program, and as the sessions progressed, she demonstrated a growing sense of composure and is clearly developing her self-esteem through her full participation during the group sessions, during which she is always willing and eager to explore different characters and support her MHS peers. Each group explored a range of emotions, voice, and animal themes, including using sound scopes as activities for the groups. A highlight of the program this year was the immense support that the MHS staff provided working closely with ATT and the spirit of teamwork and strong sense of community that emerged.

ATT Peer Leaders continue to provide a strong presence by supporting younger peers and demonstrating skills. The work of the Peer Leaders creates a strong foundation through their peer role modeling, encouraging by example to inspire younger participants to take risks in practicing and developing their true voice of expression.

ATT’s Artistic Director, Deep Chinappa, shared that “The foundation of ATT is to give the ATT participants an opportunity to dig deep within, and not to be afraid to take risks. No answer is wrong but expression is crucial to help take the big step. The need to be kind to each other and build a community of budding, distinct artists opens up the gateway to enjoy each other’s creative expression. Although the participants had varying degree of challenges, the sense of patience and kindness prevailed, making it another successful year of creative expression.”

The success of ATT is captured in a wonderful video recently created by Northeastern University journalism students Aneri Pattani, Jane Cassingham, and Chinyen Chang, who visited ATT this spring as part of a school project focused on creating a series of video features on programs that expand access and inclusion for people with disabilities. The video they created about PYD’s Access to Theatre Program provides a moving glimpse into the magic of ATT! It can be viewed below.

Any youth interested in participating in the Access to Theatre’s 2016 Summer Institute should contact Deep Chinappa as soon as possible at We’re looking forward to another wonderful summer experience filled with creativity for all!

Rivka’s Report: Using technology to embrace affinities in kids with autism


For those new to PYD, Rivka Barrett served as our Ambassador of Mentoring in 2014-2015, and she’s stayed involved as a PYD board member since moving on. Currently, she’s working for an awesome new service for youth with autism, and wants to share a little bit about it so PYD families can take advantage!

After I graduated from college in 2012, I spent two years in the academic and healthcare sectors, planning to eventually get my Ph.D. But one day, I decided to try something new.

In June 2014, I went to a forum on mentoring for youth with disabilities where I met Steve and learned of an opening at PYD for an AmeriCorps Ambassador of Mentoring. I applied, and luckily got the position! Through Steve, I began to learn about blogging and social media, offering me a new outlet to share resources and connect with the PYD community.

I’m now doing social media marketing for The Affinity Project, an assistive technology startup in Cambridge working to help families with ASD. The Affinity Project was founded by Ron Suskind, who wrote the bestselling book Life, Animated (which is now also a critically acclaimed documentary!), about his autistic son, Owen. Owen used his affinity for Disney movies to communicate with, and make sense of, the world around him.

In response to his book, Ron received a huge outpouring of stories from parents who had similar experiences with their children, or who wanted to know how to embrace their child’s passions as pathways for connection. Inspired to help others, Ron gathered a team of leading technologists and researchers to begin building Sidekicks – a fun online service that is helping families connect with and teach autistic kids through their strong interests, like Disney or LEGO.

Many children with autism have strong interests – or, as we like to call them, affinities – such as cars, trains, maps, math, robots, animals, and animated movies. Historically, doctors and therapists have suggested limiting access to affinities, on the grounds that they’re obsessive. But now many leading researchers are beginning to explore affinities as pathways for communication and connection. We’re finding that, in the case of animated movies, many kids find it easier to identify emotions in animated characters, whose facial expressions are more exaggerated than in real life. And ASD kids often appreciate the predictability of watching the same movies over and over.

Several of our staff have friends or loved ones with autism. And Owen, who has served as an advisor with our company, inspired the name of our Sidekicks service. As other kids jumped developmental hurdles, Owen noticed himself being left behind. He coped by taking on the role of a sidekick, the kind that helps the hero on his path. And in his words: “No sidekick gets left behind.”

The Affinity Project hopes to give ASD kids their own sidekicks so they can be the heroes. Our service involves three characters: the parent or therapist (the Coach), the Sidekick (an animated avatar) and the child with autism (the Hero). Here’s how it works:

Interested in trying it out? If your Hero loves Star Wars, Toy Story, or Harry Potter (and many other movies!), sign up for Sidekicks’ free Pilot Program at Or if you’d like to learn more, contact Rachel Verner directly at

Meet our Honorees: Steve Mastrocola

At PYD’s upcoming benefit event, we will be honoring Ernst & Young and a handful of individuals for their commitment to the inclusion and mentoring of youth with disabilities. Steve Mastrocola is one of our honorees, selected for his commitment to mentoring and service as a PYD board member. Steve is an Assurance Partner and is the Area Leader of Ernst & Young’s New England Assurance Practice, primarily serving clients in the technology and life sciences industries. Based in Boston, Steve has more than 25 years of experience with a significant focus on working with privately-owned and publicly-held companies in the technology sector including software, medical devices and e-commerce. Steve is a Member of the Board of Directors of PYD now for five years and is steadfast in his care and support in a plethora of ways. He gives of his time and expertise as a member of the finance committee, is a champion in giving and encourages, invites, and welcomes the participation of his family, friends and colleagues at PYD.

Learn more about Steve below! Continue reading “Meet our Honorees: Steve Mastrocola”

Youth and Family Disability Resources: May 2016

It’s May, so spring is finally here! Read on for some conferences, festivals, and all sorts of things to get us outside to enjoy the flowers and nice weather that is on its way.

Down Syndrome Advocacy Day-Boston
May 18th, 2016,  State House, Boston
The Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress (MDSC) third annual Down Syndrome Advocacy Day encourages lawmakers to support critical policies and funding to ensure that all people with Down syndrome have opportunities to lead meaningful fulfilling lives in the community. This year the MDSC needs your help to raise awareness with your legislators about two new priority bills as well as critical funding needs. This year, the top priority bills are:

  • H. 3271 – An Act Concerning Nondiscrimination in Organ Transplantation, sponsored by Representative James Cantwell, which will prevent discrimination against anyone with an intellectual or developmental disability in need of an organ transplant.
  • H.1064/S. 672 – An Act Creating Higher Education Opportunities for Students with Intellectual Disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and other Developmental Disabilities, sponsored by Rep. Tom Sannicandro and Sen. Barbara L’Italien, which will bolster Massachusetts’ Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative (ICEI) to give 18-to 22-year-old students with disabilities higher education opportunities in an inclusive college setting with necessary services and supports.

If you are interested in this opportunity,  email or visit their website. Continue reading “Youth and Family Disability Resources: May 2016”

Meet our Honorees: Carol Curtin

At PYD’s upcoming benefit event, we will be honoring Ernst & Young and a handful of individuals for their commitment to the inclusion and mentoring of youth with disabilities. Dr. Carol Curtin is one of our honorees, selected for her 30 years of compassionate work and research to support people with developmental disabilities and behavioral health disorders and their families. She was also a key collaborator and author on PYD’s recently published study on the effects of mentoring on youth with autism.

Learn more about Carol below! Continue reading “Meet our Honorees: Carol Curtin”

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