Marie Haas has worked with, and touched the hearts of, some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society – kids with autism and their families. She began and grew a company in Singapore called Embrace Autism. It was the fusion of science and art, born of a passion to care, connect and communicate. But that’s not what she set out to do, at least not officially. She actually just wanted to dance.
Chris Straigis – 00:02
Welcome to Scrappy the podcast about small companies doing big things. I’m your host, Chris Straigis. So we’re now nearing the end of 2021. And it’s been a little while since we’ve done a new episode, very sorry about that. But time has felt somehow distorted recently. I think I can safely say that in many ways, at least comparatively, our world was buzzing along in kind of a cruise control until early last year. COVID was, and still is, a catalyst for some major and massive transformations. It’s changed us. It’s changed a lot of things, from how we relate to each other, to how we relate to our jobs and even how we relate to our greater global society. Now, I know that many facets of these changes, didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Our world, our experience is ever evolving. But this pandemic was a game changer for our generation.
Chris Straigis – 01:08
No one, not the very young, not the 20 and 30 somethings, not even the elderly are coming out of this unchanged. And really, I don’t think we’ve even begun to see the true transformation. Everything we’ve experienced over the last year and a half brought about short term and rapid change. It’s the ripples in the water well beyond the original splash that may turn out to be the most fascinating. In other words, how will a change to us change the world?
Chris Straigis – 01:41
At its core, this is what Scrappy is all about, transformation. It’s about everyday people, just like you and me, doing extraordinary things. Usually finding themselves, forging their destiny from materials they didn’t even know they had, and then watching those ripples roll out in ways they themselves couldn’t even foretell. And so it is with our guest today. Marie Haas has worked with and touched the hearts of some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society – kids with autism and their families. She began and grew a company in Singapore called Embrace Autism. It was the fusion of science and art, born of a passion to care, connect and communicate. But that’s not what she set out to do, at least not officially. She actually just wanted to dance, or more specifically explore movement, self-expression and communication through dance. Little did she know when she started, how connected her ideas would be in a world far from her own, and in a land far from home. Marie’s journey began in Houston, Texas in the early 1990s, her dad was a computer programmer and her mom, a school teacher.
Marie Haas – 03:03
I can remember when I was living in Texas, um, that my mom would, you know, work with both my sister and I at home on lots of educational things. Including, um, this hooked on phonics, which I’m not sure if you know what that is, but that was very popular at the time. And I can remember sitting in the floor in the living room, you know, doing this hooked on phonics even before we were, you know, in school.
Chris Straigis – 03:37
But an early and devastating shakeup in the family would send her far north in a move to Massachusetts and begin to drive her inward.
Marie Haas – 03:48
The circumstances through which I moved across the country, um, were traumatic in terms of they, that was the falling out of my parents’ marriage, and they had just gotten divorced. So, I didn’t want to move to Massachusetts, I didn’t want to leave my friends behind. I didn’t want to leave my cat behind. I was being uprooted from everything that I had previously known. When we were living in Texas, I was taking, um, gymnastics lessons and swimming lessons, but those things were not readily available or at least not close by, um, where we lived in Massachusetts.
Marie Haas – 05:03
However, um, my aunt owned a dance studio, a town over, and so I began taking ballet lessons with her at her studio after school. I think dance really offered me a place where I could express a lot of the things that I wasn’t able to express verbally. Um, so it was definitely an anchor in that sense. It was an outlet in that sense, it gave me something to really focus on. I was able to, to use dance, to really work out all of the complex emotions that I was holding in my body. In that way, there were a lot of times where dance was incredibly healing. It was also in a way a space where I could hide. I wasn’t necessarily having conversations, um, or willing to have conversations with people around me about how I felt or what was going on in my life or how it was affecting me. Um, and instead I just sort of buried it inside of this practice. Dance in many ways, became the way I felt seen in the world.
Chris Straigis – 06:09
What Marie discovered in dance was expression – expression of feelings and emotions that she wasn’t comfortable verbalizing. It was how she talked to the world around her and, more importantly, how she talked to herself. What she couldn’t have understood at the time, however, was that her study of dance as a form of communication for feelings of which she was unable to speak, would share a deep parallel in the work she would do in the future after college. But that journey to college and beyond first took another devastating twist, where Marie came face to face with an abrupt end of her dancing life.
Marie Haas – 06:52
We are rehearsing for a production at the performing arts high school that I went to. Um, and in the middle of this rehearsal, I get dropped. I landed pretty square on the center of my spine. For what felt like a really long time I couldn’t move, but I was in a lot of pain. I didn’t think that anything was broken. I wasn’t bleeding. And so I drove myself home eventually. Um, and then the next day, uh, went to the hospital to have some x-rays done and it didn’t show that anything was broken or that anything was off, but that I should take it easy. Um, but I didn’t really do that. In that particular time of my life. I really believed that, you know, part of this practice is pain and that you have to get back up and keep going. And that that’s part of it. And so I pushed myself, um, to continue rehearsing and continue dancing and to struggle through the injury.
Marie Haas – 09:00
But as a result, at that performance that we had been preparing for, at the end of a piece, I ended up collapsing and my entire back just gave out. We found out that a bunch of the tissues and ligaments around my spine had been torn and had were bleeding, essentially. And at that point I actually had to stop dancing altogether. I was also told that I probably wouldn’t be able to dance in the same way moving forward or in the future. I was also, never mind this performance, I was also in the midst of applying to colleges and a lot of colleges that had, um, more conservative dance programs that would ultimately thrust you into the performative world of professional dance. And it sounded like at the time that that really wasn’t going to be an option for me. And so that was incredibly heartbreaking and upsetting to feel like the, the thing that I had been working my entire life for at least, you know, since I was nine or 10, um, was just going to completely disappear before it had ever come to fruition.
Chris Straigis – 09:58
Years of hard work, the voice she had developed through this art form seemed gone and a flash. Faced with the end of her future in ballet, she, once again did what she had to do, she adapted. As the old saying goes, when one door closes, another opens up and for Marie, this is where the doors would begin to open.
Marie Haas – 10:24
At the time two of my dance teachers, um, at the performing arts school were primarily, um, modern dancers or contemporary dancers. And they also had a lot of experience in improvisation and in different types of improvisation. They came to me and said, “Hey, why don’t you take a couple of classes in this? And here’s some books…” And I worked with them closely and started experimenting with improvisation, and a little bit with composing and making my own dances. They were also floating ideas about different kinds of colleges and places that I could go and study, and Bennington College happened to be one of them. And so I started looking into Bennington College and was reading about Susan Sgorbati, who is at the time, one of the, uh, dance, um, professors there. And she was teaching emergent improvisation, the idea of spontaneous composition, or composing in the moment. And I think ultimately, you know, the improvisation work became the way in which I could really find catharsis in the process of creation.
Chris Straigis – 12:03
Marie ended up choosing Bennington College in Vermont, after all it was Susan Sgorbati’s program that gave her a new path, so it seemed like a perfect fit. And during her time there, her new chosen style of expression, improvisational dance, would also lead her down another unexpected path. One that would open her eyes to a different, more science-based aspect of communication. This revelation would prove to be key in what was to come.
Marie Haas – 12:34
In my senior year, I was collaborating with my long-time dance partner and best friend, Emily Climer on a duet practice, an improvisational duet practice, that we call the Recall Form, and is about cultivating what I was saying before this, this empathy that brings us into partnership with one another. And as part of my research, um, outside of the studio, I began reading about how do we connect with others, um, and sort of what’s going on from a neurological perspective. And that’s how I found Marco Iacoboni in his book, Mirroring People and the Science of Empathy. He talks about how mirroring and imitation is the way in which we’re biologically tuned to connect with one another.
Chris Straigis – 13:47
And it’s here that her connection with autism begins.
Marie Haas – 13:51
One of the things that really struck me in reading his book was not just in relationship to this work that I was doing in dance, but he has an entire chapter on autism and dedicates an entire chapter on it in his book. And he talks about how some of this scientific research that is emerging around mirroring and imitation would support therapies that are utilizing those techniques. So I was ‘like light bulb moment,’ I’m going to volunteer at this place where they’re joining children and their exclusive and repetitive behaviors and activities, and that sounds a lot like mirroring an imitation. And it would make a lot of sense then why that’s such an effective form of building a connection and building a rapport and a relationship. I was being, you know, called in a sense to move in that direction, and towards, towards that work.
Chris Straigis – 14:58
Marie continued to dance and continued her research into Marco Iacoboni’s work, which would in turn deepen her understanding of its connection to people with autism. She would also meet her future husband, Nick, whose own path would prove pivotal for her as well.
Marie Haas – 15:17
In the year, following my graduation from Bennington college, I started volunteering at the Autism Treatment Center of America, which is the home of the Son-Rise program, which is the autism program that I’ve been heavily involved in. I was drawn to their program because of its similarities to my work in dance. Their program also focuses on connecting and building relationships with these children through what they call joining, which to me looked from the outside, very similar to these same forms of movement, um, shared movement that I was utilizing with my dance partners. And so that’s why I was really drawn, or at least that was one of the reasons why I was really drawn to what they were doing. Um, and I was also just really intrigued by their curriculum because they weren’t, you know, using the traditional curriculums that other autism therapies were using, they were using a developmental model, um, that again, really focuses on connecting and building relationships with children, but also works on building their ability to relate to others in the world and to socialize. Working in the Son-Rise Program playroom for me was ultimately no different from dancing and improvising with a partner in the studio.
Chris Straigis – 17:04
There are times, as Marie told me, that the universe just works in mysterious ways. As she begins to explore post-college life, she’s volunteering at the Autism Treatment Center of America and staying involved with Susan Sgorbati’s program. She’s still living near the college and growing roots. She’s also still dating Nick and they’re planning their future together. And then, in early 2010, he’s offered a job in Singapore and he wants Marie to go with him. This would be the second time in her young life that a move to a far away place would seem to disrupt everything. But then in the fall of that year, our friend, the universe steps in.
Marie Haas – 17:51
Nick got this, got this job opportunity in Singapore, and it was, at first it seemed like really crazy, like really crazy. And I was like, I don’t know if I can move all the way there and not know anybody or not having anything to do. In the fall of what would have been 2010, I met a family at the Autism Treatment Center of America who had come all the way from Singapore with their daughter for a Son-Rise Program intensive. And we met in the dining hall there and I said “this might sound crazy, but my boyfriend (at the time) just got a job in Singapore and I’m going to be moving to Singapore to join him, and would you be interested in me coming to work with your daughter?”
Marie Haas – 19:02
I think they were shocked in somewhat disbelief that that could possibly be happening or that I would eventually show up at their doorstep, but they agreed that they would absolutely love to have me come and volunteer in their home and work with their daughter. So ultimately that’s what I did. I picked up and packed all my stuff and I moved all the way around the world. In the first year I was still dancing, but then that kind of slowly started to become less and less, um, because I was spending more and more time, um, working with Izzy, which was the little girl that I had met at the Autism Treatment Center of America. And I was spending, at that point, eventually five days a week, I was at her home. So that became really my full-time work. Her mom and I would take turns or shifts in her playroom.
Marie Haas – 20:10
And so I would go in for a couple of hours and then she would go in for a couple of hours every day, Monday through Friday. I kind of in a certain way, I don’t really feel like even though I wasn’t dancing in the studio anymore, I didn’t really lose my, my, my dance or my improvisation practice because being with her in that room was really no different. You know, to her, I was, I was her playmate, but for me, she was really my dance partner. Sam and I Izzy’s mom, Sam, um, and I met Chris. And Chris who was another mom who was, uh, running a Son-Rise Program, playroom for her children, she was very, very connected, um, to the, to the community. And she had also been to the Autism Treatment Center of America for training in the Son-Rise Program. Once we connected with her, we began connecting with the community there. And, but there was a very, in terms of the Son-Rise Program, the community was pretty small. There was a lot of people who were interested and keen to learn about it and wanted help, even. But as far as I could tell, I was one of maybe a handful of volunteers who were helping these families and working with these children.
Chris Straigis – 22:06
Marie realized that there was a need. There was a large community of families who were in need of a better way to support their children with autism.
Marie Haas – 22:16
Most of what was offered in Singapore at that time were more traditional forms of ABA, speech or occupational therapy. Um, and there weren’t as many alternative programs. Um, and there certainly weren’t very many home-based child-centered programs like the Son-Rise Program. And at that point I started getting a lot of requests from other people – “Hey, can you work with my kid?” Um, or, “Hey, can you train my volunteers?” And of course, like I said, I was running and working with Izzy five days a week, and so I really didn’t have the bandwidth to do that. But I thought like, it seems like there’s a need for this. There’s a community of parents and children who are looking for other ways. I emailed Raun Kaufman, who is the Director of Global Education at the Autism Treatment Center of America. He’s also the author of Autism Breakthrough, which is the book that sort of offers this step-by-step look at running the Son-Rise Program with your children. And I was like, “Hey, I’m here. This is what’s happening. Do you think that you would ever be interested in running a week-long training program in Singapore?” To my surprise and my excitement one afternoon, I got an email saying that they would love to have a conversation about bringing the Son-Rise Program to Singapore.
Marie Haas – 24:02
That first conversation was really exciting. It was also incredibly overwhelming because I didn’t really realize what kind of can I was opening up, Suddenly, it was like, okay, in order for this to happen, you have to have an organization. And, you know, all the, the things that go into running a program, and not just a program, but really a not-for-profit. And I, at that point ,for as much as I was excited, I felt really overwhelmed. We, you know, we knew we were going to need help, and so we had reached out to all of these other parents and said, “Hey, we’re going to need volunteers. We’re going to need help.” And so we got a small group together at my apartment in Singapore, and we just had a big brainstorming session. And to be honest, I actually have no idea who said it, but at a certain point, that name was floated and everybody loved it.
Chris Straigis – 25:05
And so in 2014, Embrace Autism was born. As it’s said, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’ And it was all Marie could do to take that one step at a time.
Marie Haas – 25:20
So at first we didn’t really have a long-term vision. We, we really just thought, okay, we’re going to create this company because we need it in order to partner with the Autism Treatment Center of America, to bring them over here, to teach the program. And then when it’s over, we’ll dissolve it, right. We won’t keep it because this was sort of going to be a one and done kind of situation. Like let’s help educate some people, and that was sort of, as far as the vision was initially. We also didn’t have any funding. So we started by the three of us contributing our own funds with the hopes that we would create and balance a budget that would pay ourselves back at the end of it. You know, this was just sort of a project, you know, a one-time project that we were working on initially.
Marie Haas – 26:28
Raun came over, and part of what they offer when they run the Son-Rise Program in other parts of the world, is first a lecture tour with Raun, where Raun comes and speaks. So we set up a series of lectures, a couple in Singapore, and also a couple in Malaysia, right next door. And set up a TV interview and a radio interview, an interview with a magazine, a local magazine in Singapore. And we did all of this by sort of word of mouth and connection. Like Chris was like, I know somebody here and Sam knew somebody here. And so we really started building this larger community of people, and surrounding ourselves with people who were also passionate about this, wanted to be involved and wanted to help. And as a result of really building and utilizing that community, we became bigger and bigger.
Marie Haas – 27:43
By the end of the lecture tour, we had reached over a thousand people, um, between Singapore and Malaysia. And so, and that far exceeded our expectation in terms of how many people were going to show up. And then we ended up having 135 participants registered for the training program that would then happen in May of 2015, and that would be the first program that we ran. We were just in awe and obviously so excited. It just organically grew from that place.
Marie Haas – 28:35
Other groups started reaching out to us from around Southeast Asia and we ended up partnering with a group in the Philippines and a group in Vietnam. It was really, really became much more than we envisioned. And it just took on a life of its own. You know, and really that’s, you know, in part, obviously a Testament to our, our passion for like helping spread this thing. But also I think more than anything, this community that was hungry for this and the people who just continued to show up and offer help and offer support and want to grow this thing with us.
Chris Straigis – 29:33
Trauma, relocation, injury – it all helped shape Marie’s young life. The separation of her parents, the move across the country, the near total loss of the one thing that helped her cope, dance. But other natural instincts drive and persistence and optimism, Marie used those tools to adapt and achieve more than she thought possible. They helped her find a way to help others. She’s been guided not only by instinct, but also by the chance people she met along the way – Susan Sgorbati, Marco Iacoboni, her husband, Nick, Raun Kaufman, and of course, Izzy a young girl with autism that would speak for the universe and clear a path for Marie to follow.
Marie Haas – 30:25
So I’m still in touch with her family. I’m in touch with her mostly via WhatsApp. Um, she she’ll usually WhatsApp me, um, in her evening, which is my morning. And she’ll ask me what I’m doing at home today. Mostly because of the pandemic. She’s outgrown her need for the Son-Rise Program and is really in school and making friends and thriving in the world. A lot of times I think about, you know, her footprint really, in the world and in a way being bigger than mine in terms of allowing this thing to come to fruition. Like if I hadn’t met her and moved to Singapore, then none of this ever really would have happened. And so my work with her, my relationship with her, my friendship with her has, has been incredibly special for me.
Chris Straigis – 31:43
To learn more about Embrace Autism. You can find them at facebook.com/embraceautism.sg, and you can get more information about the Autism Treatment Center of America and their Son-Rise Program at autismtreatmentcenter.org. For those of you into dance and movement, I’d also encourage you to visit emergentimprovisation.org, to learn more about Marie’s work with Susan Sgorbati. You can find transcripts and links from today’s show at scrappypod.com. And you can listen back to all of our previous stories at the website or wherever you get your podcasts. And we do have some great conversations slated over the next couple of months, so please do keep an eye on us. And of course, as always, thanks for listening to Scrappy.