'Like a wink and a smile'
For the first time ever, 9-year-old Owen Annicchiarico took to Café the Lodge's Open Mic stage to sing two children's classics. With focus and stage presence, Owen sang "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" with no musical accompaniment and, just in case there was a memory lapse, only minimal cues from his Dad's tablet with the song lyrics.
Courtney Annicchiarico, Owen's proud mom, says this is a wonderful change from a year ago, when Owen, who is diagnosed as high-functioning on the autism spectrum, could not even sit and listen to a performance without getting visibly upset.
At that earlier Open Mic visit, it was only a Rubik's Cube provided by an audience member that enabled Owen to regain his equilibrium. Working on the colorful cube puzzle, Owen sat and listened to the other performers, one of whom was his dad, Greg Annicchiarico.
From not being able to tolerate this social setting to wanting to participate is remarkable and a testament to the Café, says Courtney.
Now, and only for the third time on the Open Mic stage, Owen graciously accepts the audience's applause at the end of his performance: "Thank you very much," he smiles out at the audience.
Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States. Each child with autism is unique; many have exceptional abilities in music and academics but most have difficulty in social settings. More common among boys than girls, autism, according to U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum.
But Owen and his older brother, Noah, 11, who is diagnosed with Asperger's, have discovered the love of performing on stage and being accepted for their musical accomplishments.
Each month, the first and third Friday finds professional and amateur musicians taking the stage to provide live entertainment from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at South Bethlehem's Café the Lodge, at 427 E. Fourth St.
Open Mic Fridays not only provide a family night of entertainment for the Annicchiaricos; they also offer a comfort zone. The acceptance and respect Noah and Owen receive at the Café have allowed them to break out and explore their musical abilities and build their self-esteem, says Courtney.
For families with special needs children such as those on the autism spectrum, finding family entertainment where the children can thrive and grow and be accepted for themselves can be a challenge. Greg and Courtney say it is a credit to the accepting atmosphere everyone, from Café the Lodge deli staff to the Open Mic audience, provides.
When the family arrives to have a bite to eat before Greg and his sons take the stage, the Café staff takes special care to prepare the boys' menu favorite, plain bagels with cream cheese and chocolate milk, just the way they like it.
Owen and Noah attend Miller Heights ES, where they receive behavioral services as behavioral services as part of helping them with socialization skills, which can often challenge autistic children. The social integration provided at the Café supports the school staff and offers a safe place where the boys can hang out and feel valued, Greg says. Greg, who teaches his sons music, says that the incentive for getting Owen to practice his keyboard is to tell him that he can perform at Open Mic.
Both boys enjoy their time on stage. Noah likes to listen to other performers more, but has the ability to play the guitar not only by reading notes, but also by observing his dad's finger picking. In May, at a first Friday Open Mic night, Noah played "A Wink and A Smile" by Harry Connick Jr. Dad sat with his guitar fingering along soundlessly as a backup.
Connick's lyrics send out a message: Café the Lodge and people striving to survive the challenge of a disability "go together like a wink and a smile."
For more information on Café the Lodge's calendar events, go to www.thelodge-rhd.org.