Saddleback College celebrates students with autism in the 2021 Open Diversity Festival

McKinney Theatre at Saddleback College hosts events for the Fine Arts department. Brandon Chavez/courtesy

The Fine Arts and Media Technology department will virtually host its next episode of the Open Diversity Festival on April 28. The episode, “Autism, Education and Performing Arts: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going,” will start at noon and include professional dialogue and student performances from Saddleback. 

Leanne Libas, an Instagram influencer, disability advocate and Saddleback alumni, will be one of the hosts for the event. The episode will include an interview between Heidi Ochoa, a Communications Studies professor at Saddleback, and Blythe A. Corbett, a psychology and psychiatry professor at Vanderbilt University. Videos of student performers, Marcus Knight, Steven Reames and Alexis Chodirker will also be featured. 

Heidi Ochoa is the Communication Studies Professor at Saddleback College.
Heidi Ochoa/courtesy

Professor Heidi Ochoa graduated from California State University, Los Angeles, with a master’s degree in Communication Studies and an emphasis on Performance and Rhetoric. She creates and coaches between 20-30 performance pieces with students every year at Saddleback.

Scott Farthing, the Dean of Fine Arts and Media Technology suggested presenting ideas about autism at the Open Diversity Festival after reading her blog, The Autism Collection. Maria Mayenzet, a Cinema-Television-Radio professor at Saddleback, sent reels of individuals who self-identified as autistic in her course, and three were selected.

“I am deeply excited to share ‘Autism, Education, and Performing Arts: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?’ with our campus community,” she said. “It was designed with the intent to celebrate the performance scholarship that is emerging and teaching us that performance is not just a medium to be enjoyed. It is a medium that can be used to intervene and support humans’ social and emotional needs.”

Blythe A. Corbett of Vanderbilt University will be interviewed in the 2021 Open Diversity Festival at Saddleback College. Blythe A. Corbett/courtesy

Blythe A. Corbett, PhD. is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is the Director of the Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology lab, a translational research program focused on better understanding and treating social competence and stress in children, adolescents and adults with an autism spectrum disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health has consistently funded her research since 2005, which includes a current multisite clinical trial with youth with ASD and a new study of adults with ASD, both examining the impact of SENSE Theatre ®.

“Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by challenges with reciprocal social communication and flexible thought and behavior,” Corbett said. “Notably, the ‘spectrum’ is highly variable, presenting with unique strengths and areas of difficulty. However, just like anyone else, many of our children, adolescents and adults with autism can accomplish much with appropriate guidance and supportive context.”

Leanne Libas is a former Saddleback student who is an Instagram influencer and blogger about her experiences with autism. Leanne Libas/courtesy

Leanne Libas graduated from El Toro High School in 2015, where she lettered in both cross country and track & field. She won both the Erin Joyce Scholarship and Dr. Walter Cascell Scholarship at ETHS and was voted the most improved runner as a senior. She was on the Saddleback cross country team in 2016.

Libas is a young writer, student and disability advocate. She started advocating after a life-changing experience at Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities. Libas was an Autistic Scholarship Fellowship Recipient from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

“I think the most common myth is autistics having a lack of empathy,” she said. “In actuality, we do experience empathy, but we feel it differently than most people. For me, I feel empathy strongly that it can affect my senses.”

Libas has a popular blog on the Art of Autism, Breaking Out: My Story and is an Art of Autism advisory board member. She was recognized as Autistic Women Who Are Making A Difference in 2017.

“My current project is being an ‘In Our Own Voice’ speaker at NAMI’s Greater Los Angeles County affiliate,” she said.

Marcus Knight plays for the Padres of Laguna Niguel baseball team for youth with special needs at Cox Sports Park. Martha Phillips/Lariat

Marcus Knight is a former student at Saddleback who majored in Fine Arts and Theatre in 2018 and 2019.

His compilation video of auditions from the communications class will be among those highlighted in the Open Diversity Festival. Knight is continuing his acting and singing classes at this time through private education and tutoring.

“I feel happy, and it makes me feel good because I know that the professor who nominated me remembers me and appreciates my hard work,” Knight said.

Steven Reames of Laguna Hills, CA will be featured in the 2021 Open Diversity Festival at Saddleback College. Steven Reames/courtesy

Steven Reames was born and raised in southern California, where his family enrolled him in special classes and programs for autistic students to work on his speech and social skills. He has a strong fondness for movies, television, sound design and voice acting. In 2016, Reames earned his Associate of Arts degree in Liberal Studies from Saddleback with high honors.

“What makes Saddleback College special for me is their support for students on the autism spectrum,” Reames said. “The Disabled Students Programs and Services helps students on the autistic spectrum or who have any other physical or mental disability that may be a challenge to their learning experiences by providing support services, specialized instructions and academic accommodations.”

Reames graduated from California State University, Fullerton, in 2018, Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of the Arts degree in Cinema and Television Arts. He returned to Saddleback to broaden his skills in acting.

“My performance reel features several portrayals from classes at Saddleback assigned to me, from V from ‘V for Vendetta’ and the character, Pete Conley, from ‘Spotlight’ where I acted as a friendly, considerate lawyer with a light Irish kind of voice,” Reames said. “I chose a monologue from ‘Memento’ in 2020 because I enjoy portraying an intelligent yet mysterious man which fits similarly to my portrayal of ‘V.’ I feel very honored to be selected for this event.”

Reames is currently participating in Maria Mayenzet’s Cold Reading Club in preparation for auditions. Mayenzet  continues to help him develop and broaden his acting skills in front of the camera.

“After I was congratulated for this special occasion, I consider myself lucky to have friends and family who support and encourage me to do what I do best as well as having a special talent with my voice work,” he said. 

Alexis Chodirker is passionate about resuming her career as an actress once the pandemic is over. Alexis Chodirker/courtesy

Alexis Chodirker began her studies at Saddleback in 2014 with a major in Theatre. Her video reels of acting roles will also be showcased at the Open Diversity Festival.

“I am passionate about acting,” she said. “It is the love of my life. I have my teachers to thank for all of the nuggets of wisdom.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chodirker has been unable to participate much in her acting but plans to resume her studies once the pandemic is over. She is also interested in a role in the mental health field.

“I am honored and truly humbled by this recognition,” she said.

This episode of the 2021 Open Diversity Festival covers topics, including the inclusion of autistic actors and audience members and the utilization of theatre techniques as a therapeutic intervention.