Played well…Cocalico junior defies Asperger’s; lands lead in Reading musical production

By on April 26, 2017

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To meet 17-year-old Josh Battisti, a budding thespian and junior at Cocalico High School, one may never expect to link him with the word autism. The theater-obsessed teen is often all smiles, in and out of character. It is hard for those who may have just met Josh to envision him as the little “Tasmanian Devil” once described lovingly by his mother.

“He’s come a long way. The Josh you see now is not the Josh he was when he was little,” said Heidi Battisti, Josh’s mother.

She credits early intervention for his progress… and a deep and insatiable interest in what he finds fascinating.

“When you have a child on the autism spectrum, once they find their gift — which they all seem to have one — they bloom like a flower,” said Heidi. “When Josh was little, it was dinosaurs. He knew everything and anything about them. He would even find errors in publications about dinosaurs. Then when he discovered musical theater he just went from zero to 101 percent in his passion.”

Josh started in theater by attending summer camp at Ephrata Performing Arts Center; the program is now known as Center Stage Summer Theater Camp. From there, he auditioned for EPAC’s “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr.” in 2012 and “Annie Jr.” in 2013, but failed to be cast.

“I went to go see the ‘Wizard of Oz’ auditions and I got Scarecrow. So, that was pretty cool,” said Josh.

In his words, Josh’s mother “dragged” him to auditions. The trips to the theater were primarily for his sister, Sophie, who has also played on the EPAC stage, most recently as Sarafina the lioness in “Disney’s The Lion King Jr.” He caught the theater bug after “Wizard of Oz.”

“Basically, I just had to let myself be silly. I’m really not that rigid of a person; I just had to let myself be me,” said Josh about becoming the seemingly brainless sack of stuffing.

Next came voice and dance lessons. He followed up his performance as Scarecrow with a scene-stealing bit as Chef Louis in EPAC’s “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” in 2015. Most recently, Battisti played Jafar in “Disney’s Aladdin Jr.” in 2016.

He had yet to branch out from the EPAC family and high school performances — one of which he was kicked out of due to artistic differences — until he recently landed the lead role in Reading’s Genesius Theatre’s upcoming performance of “Rock of Ages.”

“It’s the typical rock love story,” said Josh.

Josh’s story with Asperger’s Syndrome started at an early age. His family noticed something was different with the toddler.

“He had a huge file at the day care center,” admitted Heidi.

It seemed Josh was being punished for bad behavior that really wasn’t bad behavior; he was trying to cope with being overwhelmed and often acted out in a way that appeared violent. He was set off by changes of light and smell, but his biggest struggle was going from place to place. A simple trip to the grocery store became a nightmarish ordeal.

“Any transition (and) he would have a huge meltdown,” recalled Heidi.

Doctor’s refer to Asperger’s Syndrome as a high-functioning condition on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which may present early symptoms through lack of eye contact, social miscues with body language, or the inability to convey emotions. In 2014, the Center for Disease Control estimated one in 68 children are born with a form of ASD, effecting 3.5 million people nationwide. Diagnosis is often a difficult process.

The Battisti’s almost started Josh, at age 3, on a regiment of the pharmaceutical Strattera to combat what they thought was ADHD, but after attending a conference in West Chester they knew Josh had something different. They found a support group in Lancaster and, although it provided a source of comfort and inclusion for the Battisti’s, it also alienated the family a bit. Many of the children had early intervention, at ages one and two, while Josh had not. Many of the parents were supplementing the intervention with prescription drugs.

“We were in the dark about a lot of this,” said Josh’s father, Joe Battisti.

The saving grace for the Battisti’s came from within when Josh’s grandfather retired from the Pennsylvania State Police and decided to stay with the youngster to help him adjust and prepare for kindergarten. With some help socializing, Josh went from being described as defiant to ready to learn.

He was immediately assigned an individualized education plan in kindergarten at Denver Elementary, which has followed Josh throughout his schooling. The program has developed as Josh has aged. In elementary school, he had a professional who traveled with him, but the middle-schooler grew comfortable enough to realize he no longer needed the “shadow person.”

“His peers have always been there and have always been supportive of Josh,” said his parents, who are both graduates of Ephrata High School.

When high school comes to an end for Josh next year, he hopes to further his education in theater. Ultimately, he is looking at any future in the performing arts.

“(I’m) working on some place in theater, in that general direction, wherever it takes me I guess,” said Josh.

He is attracted to the theater program at Penn State.

“I’m going to apply to all the top theater schools and places around here, too,” said Josh. “My favorite aspect (of theater) is making people laugh. I love to hear everyone go crazy after something I said. That laughter really keeps you going. It gives you adrenaline. It gives you power; you feel like you are on top of the world.”

He looks forward to getting the opportunity to direct also, especially comedies.

“Musicals are where it’s at because I love to sing,” said Josh, whose favorite show is “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Until he lands a role in that rock opera he is content to portray Drew Boley (originally played on Broadway by American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis) in “Rock of Ages.” The show is comprised of ‘80s rock songs from bands like Styx, Journey, and Bon Jovi. It will surely be another stepping stone for Battisti.

“Rock of Ages” runs Dec. 6 through 17 at the Genesius Theatre, 153 North 10th St. (Corner of 10th and Walnut), Reading.

One Comment

  1. anonymous

    April 26, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    Great article on an outstanding young man. I really enjoyed reading about his achievements! However, I would like to say that I take issue with the title of this article. Why does Battisti have to ‘defy’ Asperger’s Syndrome in order to be a high-achieving theater student? It seems to suggest that individuals with Asperger’s or others on the autism spectrum have to overcome or act in a way that contradicts their diagnosis in order to be successful. Of course, that is not the case; I took away from this article that Battisti has developed into a talented theater performer while living with Asperger’s Syndrome, not ‘defying’ it. Also, why do you follow the statement that “one may never expect to link him to the word autism” with the observation that he is “often all smiles”? This may have just been unfortunate sentence placement, but it seems to suggest that people with autism usually do not smile or that there are some sort of determined characteristics that one could use to identify an autistic person. Great content, questionable implications at times.

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