Boy with autism speaks first sentence after seeing Vivid’s ‘inclusive’ light show

Elizabeth Fortescue

If you bundle a child into a jumper and beanie for a chilly night out at Vivid Sydney, you’ll soon be treated to a stream of chatter about the sparkly blanket of magic cast over the city by the lights and projections.

But when an excited Charlie Isackson turned to his mum at Vivid and told her, “I like it”, it was the only thing he said all night. In fact, it was the only sentence Charlie has ever said in all his seven years.

His simple statement of joy reduced just about everyone to tears. Certainly, his mum Reachelle Lancaster of Dee Why, only just held herself together.

The “accepting environment” surrounding Tumbalong Lights relieved stress and enabled children with disabilities to socialise happily together

“To hear those words come out of his mouth was such an amazing moment for me,” Lancaster says.

“He’s been trying so hard with his speech. We’ve been having therapy for six years.”

Charlie, like his twin Andrew, has autism and other health challenges that can make crowds and loud noises uncomfortable.

Boy With Autism

Leon Isackson with son Charlie

But Charlie’s delighted reaction was to one of the lightworks in Tumbalong Lights — Vivid’s first “inclusive playground experience” for those with disabilities located in Tumbalong Park at Darling Harbour.

The object that gave Charlie so much delight was an ocean-themed light sculpture called In The Scale Of The Sea, by Rockdale artists George Buchanan and Govinda Webster.

Charlie had been busy pushing the giant piano keys around the outside of the piece, triggering tinkling musical notes and sending coloured lights bouncing around the model seaweed and sea creatures.

When Saturday Extra was at Tumbalong Lights this week, twin Andrew Isackson thanked Buchanan for her work by kissing her hand and giving her a big smile.

Vivid Sydney made a big effort to make sure everyone enjoyed the lights this year. Destination NSW, which owns the event, collaborated with some passionate partners to offer a group of four special lightworks created for Tumbalong Lights.


Vivid Sydney 18 Drone Highlights

Real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield leaned on some of their corporate mates to come up with the money, artists were employed to design and make the works, and childhood disability and education experts brought their knowledge of best practice to the table.

The project became self-generating. Cushman and Wakefield chief executive James Patterson says more than half of his 200 staff members volunteered to help out on-site at night.

Cushman and Wakefield’s marketing manager Anna Town says Tumbalong Lights was “great fun”, and would be back again next year “bigger and better”.

“We’re definitely going to do it again. We have new ideas,” Town says.

She and the other project members are thrilled that Tumbalong Lights attracted 50,000 visitors during Vivid, which opened on May 25 and ends tonight.

 Christian Gilles.

Charlie Isackson at the Tumbalong Lights, Darling Harbour. Pic: Christian Gilles.

EarlyEd, Play For All Australia and the Touched By Olivia Foundation all gave advice to the project.

EarlyEd provides early intervention and support to families of children with a disability, according to chief executive Kerry Dominish. She says effective support meant helping the whole family, not just the child.

“That’s one of the really special things about the whole inclusion approach that Cushman and Wakefield have brought to this. It recognises the needs of the child and the family as a whole,” she says.

Buchanan, director of Rockdale prop-making studio Pink Cactus, says the artists involved with Tumbalong Lights had instructions about how to adapt the lightworks so that they were easy for people with disabilities to engage with.

The “accepting environment” surrounding Tumbalong Lights relieved stress and enabled children with disabilities to socialise happily together and with others.

 Christian Gilles.

Andrew Isackson, artist George Buchanan, mum Reachelle Lancaster, Charlie Isackson and dad Leon Isackson pictured at the Tumbalong Lights. Pic: Christian Gilles.

So why would young Charlie have suddenly put his first sentence together at Vivid? What would prompt a little boy like him to suddenly express himself verbally?

Such miraculous moments come “because you are allowing people to feel included,” Dominish says. And those moments can have important future benefits.

“Sometimes those surprise moments make people understand that there’s more possibility,” she says.

“The fact Charlie’s mum thought he was non-verbal means (his parents) will have a different expectation. As soon as you have that, you change opportunities.”

At Circular Quay, Vivid offered another opportunity for people to set their disability aside and just enjoy the lights.

Paul Seo, 19, of Kellyville, (centre) who is vision impaired, tries out the Iris Vision technology from Samsung at Vivid Sydney 2018.

Paul Seo, 19, of Kellyville, (centre) who is vision impaired, tries out the Iris Vision technology from Samsung at Vivid Sydney 2018.

 Christian Gilles.

Andrew Isackson with lights artist George Buchanan. Pic: Christian Gilles.

Those with vision impairments were given the chance to test Samsung’s Iris Vision — technology developed in the past two years and available through Samsung partner Vision Australia.

The individual uses a wearable, adjustable device to magnify what they are seeing.

For sight-impaired UNSW student Paul Seo, 19, of Kellyville, Iris Vision allowed him to see across Sydney Harbour to the lights on the Luna Park ferris wheel.

Without Iris Vision, Mr Seo said, he would have still enjoyed Vivid. “But the experience would have been much more reclusive,” he says.