After an exhilarating day on the set of ABC’s family sitcom “Speechless,” 14-year-old actor Coby Bird returned to his Honeywagon trailer, desperate for some chapstick and some sleep. Bird did a single-episode stint on the first season of the show, just one of several professional gigs the young performer has worked this year.
But there is one thing that sets Bird apart from other budding Hollywood starlets: he was diagnosed with autism at the age of 5. His brief role on “Speechless” had autism, but both neuro-typical and neuro-diverse young actors auditioned for the character.
Leading up to “Speechless,” his television debut, Bird had worked closely with Los Angeles theater company The Miracle Project, a theatre program for children and teens with autism spectrum disorders.
Ten years ago, The Miracle Project had its first public appearance at the Talking About Curing Autism Conference in Orange County. Members of the program were performing songs at the convention, and they called for audience participation. A young boy with astoundingly bright red hair stepped up to the stage and serenaded the audience with The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
“I wasn’t even really singing the song, well, I guess I was in a way, but my parents were just bawling their eyes out,” said Bird. He had been recently diagnosed at the time of the performance.
“We were all just mesmerized,” said disability activist and founder of The Miracle Project Elaine Hall.
Bird, however, did not join the theater group right away. Hall and Bird were reunited eight years later, when Rachel, Bird’s mom, signed her son up for The Miracle Project’s after-school classes at the Help Group in Sherman Oaks. Hall, or Coach E, did not realize that Bird was the same boy she had met so many years prior.
Upon beginning the class, Bird was homeschooled. He had been bullied throughout elementary school, he was prone to throwing temper-tantrums, and was sensitive to overwhelming sensory exposure. He walked around wearing headphones for several years. He went through a series of aides, but eventually his parents decided it would be in everyone’s best interest for them to teach their only child from home.
Bird spent his days reading Stephen King’s “The Shining” (English is his favorite subject) and doing math while his mom, an American Sign Language interpreter, took him grocery shopping. In the afternoons and evenings, he would be with his friends at The Miracle Project.
When Bird began working with The Miracle Project three years ago, he spent one afternoon per week in an after school class, where he barely spoke, though Hall recalls him being impressively committed to his character.
“He took his role so seriously. He really wanted to make sure he did things exactly right. He spoke with a British accent and got the character down, but he was so shy,” said Hall. “But I’m like, this is a serious actor.”
Hall saw great potential, and Bird made it clear that his ambition was to become a professional actor. Hall, who had been a professional acting coach until she founded The Miracle Project in order to support her autistic son, began to privately coach Bird.
In January of 2016, she cast him in The Miracle Project’s first professional production, an original musical, “The Intimidation Game,” in Beverly Hills.
Today, Bird spends several hours a week working with the company, records demos for their original musicals, and speaks on panels on behalf of the program. .
The young actor is hardly reminiscent of the shy boy who ventured into a theater class three years ago.
In “The Intimidation Game,” Bird was cast as a bully, which initially brought back traumatic memories for the young performer. But he decided to stick it out, and wound up wowing audiences with what Hall called his “brilliant” improvisation skills. Hall says that Bird is living proof that people with autism are quite capable of being spontaneous.
Soon after, Bird participated in an audition-based musical theatre training program, Broadway Dreams. He was the first-ever autistic performer chosen by this company to perform amongst a select group of students at New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center.
“Everyone was nice to me. I was accepted and I knew what to do. That’s what gave me more confidence. That’s what got me out of my shell and made me who I am today,” said Bird.
Last month, for his freshman year of high school, Bird began working with K-12, an online schooling system. This gives him flexibility to pursue his acting career and structure to his curriculum. He listens to jazz music to stay relaxed, watches lots of TV for artistic inspiration, and said that he no longer experiences sensory overload. Some people, he said, don’t even realize he has autism upon meeting him or seeing him perform.
“He’s a really special guy,” said Hall. “He has just grown and grown and grown. [He has] this ability to reflect what’s going on inside of him, as someone with autism, in a way that people just get it. He’s such a wonderful friend.”
Bird’s mom uses the hashtag #AutismDoesn’tStopHim on her social media accounts, where she posts pictures and videos of Bird performing his favorite tunes from Hamilton and A Chorus Line.
In June of this year, Bird auditioned for his first non-autistic role in a Gushers commercial. He didn’t ultimately get to be in the television spot. Nonetheless, he was incredibly excited that he had proven to his agents that they could– and should– send him on auditions for roles both with and without “autistic” in their descriptions.
“When I’m on stage, I don’t think of myself as Coby with autism. I think of myself as Coby the actor, the singer, the dancer, the musician. [I] just want everyone to enjoy the show,” said Bird.